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- Over Prairie Trails - 5/28 -


springs I fastened with clamps two upright iron supports; between them with thumbscrews the searchlight of a wrecked steam tractor which I got for a "Thank-you" from a junk-pile. Into the buggy box I laid a borrowed acetylene gas tank, strapped down with two bands of galvanized tin. I made the connection by a stout rubber tube, "guaranteed not to harden in the severest weather." To the side of the box I attached a short piece of bandiron, bent at an angle, so that a bicycle lamp could be slipped over it. Against the case that I should need a handlight, I carried besides a so-called dashboard coal-oil lantern with me. With all lamps going, it must have been a strange outfit to look at from a distance in the dark.

I travelled by this time in fur coat and cap, and I carried a robe for myself and blankets for the horses, for I now fed them on the road soon after crossing the creek.

Now on the second Friday of November there had been a smell of smoke in the air from the early morning. The marsh up north was afire--as it had been off and on for a matter of twenty-odd years. The fire consumes on the surface everything that will burn; the ground cools down, a new vegetation springs up, and nobody would suspect --as there is nothing to indicate--that only a few feet below the heat lingers, ready to leap up again if given the opportunity In this case I was told that a man had started to dig a well on a newly filed claim, and that suddenly he found himself wrapped about in smoke and flames. I cannot vouch for the truth of this, but I can vouch for the fact that the smoke of the fire was smelt for forty miles north and that in the afternoon a combination of this smoke (probably furnishing "condensation nuclei") and of the moisture in the air, somewhere along or above the lake brought about the densest fog I had ever seen on the prairies. How it spread, I shall discuss later on. To give an idea of its density I will mention right here that on the well travelled road between two important towns a man abandoned his car during the early part of the night because he lost his nerve when his lights could no longer penetrate the fog sufficiently to reach the road.

I was warned at noon. "You surely do not intend to go out to-night?" remarked a lawyer-acquaintance to me at the dinner table in the hotel; for by telephone from lake-points reports of the fog had already reached the town. "I intend to leave word at the stable right now," I replied, "to have team and buggy in front of the school at four o'clock." "Well," said the lawyer in getting up, "I would not; you'll run into fog."

And into fog I did run. At this time of the year I had at best only a little over an hour's start in my race against darkness. I always drove my horses hard now while daylight lasted; I demanded from them their very best strength at the start. Then, till we reached the last clear road over the dam, I spared them as much as I could. I had met up with a few things in the dark by now, and I had learned, if a difficulty arose, how much easier it is to cope with it even in failing twilight than by the gleam of lantern or headlight; for the latter never illumine more than a limited spot.

So I had turned Bell's corner by the time I hit the fog. I saw it in front and to the right. It drew a slanting line across the road. There it stood like a wall. Not a breath seemed to be stirring. The fog, from a distance, appeared to rise like a cliff, quite smoothly, and it blotted out the world beyond. When I approached it, I saw that its face was not so smooth as it had appeared from half a mile back; nor was it motionless. In fact, it was rolling south and west like a wave of great viscosity. Though my senses failed to perceive the slightest breath of a breeze, the fog was brewing and whirling, and huge spheres seemed to be forming in it, and to roll forward, slowly, and sometimes to recede, as if they had encountered an obstacle and rebounded clumsily. I had seen a tidal wave, fifty or more feet high, sweep up the "bore" of a river at the head of the Bay of Fundy. I was reminded of the sight; but here everything seemed to proceed in a strangely, weirdly leisurely way. There was none of that rush, of that hurry about this fog that characterizes water. Besides there seemed to be no end to the wave above; it reached up as far as your eye could see--now bulging in, now out, but always advancing. It was not so slow however, as for the moment I judged it to be; for I was later on told that it reached the town at about six o'clock. And here I was, at five, six and a half miles from its limits as the crow flies.

I had hardly time to take in the details that I have described before I was enveloped in the folds of the fog. I mean this quite literally, for I am firmly convinced that an onlooker from behind would have seen the grey masses fold in like a sheet when I drove against them. It must have looked as if a driver were driving against a canvas moving in a slight breeze--canvas light and loose enough to be held in place by the resistance of the air so as to enclose him. Or maybe I should say "veiling" instead of canvas--or something still lighter and airier. Have you ever seen milk poured carefully down the side of a glass vessel filled with water? Well, clear air and fog seemed to behave towards each other pretty much the same way as milk in that case behaves towards water.

I am rather emphatic about this because I have made a study of just such mists on a very much smaller scale. In that northern country where my wife taught her school and where I was to live for nearly two years as a convalescent, the hollows of the ground on clear cold summer nights, when the mercury dipped down close to the freezing point, would sometimes fill with a white mist of extraordinary density. Occasionally this mist would go on forming in higher and higher layers by condensation; mostly however, it seemed rather to come from below. But always, when it was really dense, there was a definite plane of demarcation. In fact, that was the criterion by which I recognised this peculiar mist. Mostly there is, even in the north, a layer of lesser density over the pools, gradually shading off into the clear air above. Nothing of what I am going to describe can be observed in that case.

One summer, when I was living not over two miles from the lakeshore, I used to go down to these pools whenever they formed in the right way; and when I approached them slowly and carefully, I could dip my hand into the mist as into water, and I could feel the coolness of the misty layers. It was not because my hand got moist, for it did not. No evaporation was going on there, nor any condensation either. Nor did noticeable bubbles form because there was no motion in the mass which might have caused the infinitesimal droplets to collide and to coalesce into something perceivable to my senses.

Once, of a full-moon night, I spent an hour getting into a pool like that, and when I looked down at my feet, I could not see them. But after I had been standing in it for a while, ten minutes maybe, a clear space had formed around my body, and I could see the ground. The heat of my body helped the air to redissolve the mist into steam. And as I watched, I noticed that a current was set up. The mist was continually flowing in towards my feet and legs where the body-heat was least. And where evaporation proceeded fastest, that is at the height of my waist, little wisps of mist would detach themselves from the side of the funnel of clear air in which I stood, and they would, in a slow, graceful motion, accelerated somewhat towards the last, describe a downward and inward curve towards the lower part of my body before they dissolved. I thought of that elusive and yet clearly defined layer of mist that forms in the plane of contact between the cold air flowing from Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and the ambient air of a sultry summer day. [Footnote: See Burroughs' wonderful description of this phenomenon in "Riverby."]

On another of the rare occasions when the mists had formed in the necessary density I went out again, put a stone in my pocket and took a dog along. I approached a shallow mist pool with the greatest caution. The dog crouched low, apparently thinking that I was stalking some game. Then, when I had arrived within about ten or fifteen yards from the edge of the pool, I took the stone from my pocket, showed it to the dog, and threw it across the pool as fast and as far as I could. The dog dashed in and tore through the sheet. Where the impact of his body came, the mist bulged in, then broke. For a while there were two sheets, separated by a more or less clearly defined, vertical layer of transparency or maybe blackness rather. The two sheets were in violent commotion, approaching, impinging upon each other, swinging back again to complete separation, and so on. But the violence of the motion consisted by no means in speed: it suggested a very much retarded rolling off of a motion picture reel. There was at first an element of disillusion in the impression. I felt tempted to shout and to spur the mist into greater activity. On the surface, to both sides of the tear, waves ran out, and at the edges of the pool they rose in that same leisurely, stately way which struck me as one of the most characteristic features of that November mist; and at last it seemed as if they reared and reached up, very slowly as a dying man may stand up once more before he falls. And only after an interval that seemed unconscionably long to me the whole pool settled back to comparative smoothness, though without its definite plane of demarcation now. Strange to say, the dog had actually started something, a rabbit maybe or a jumping deer, and did not return.

When fogs spread, as a rule they do so in air already saturated with moisture. What really spreads, is the cold air which by mixing with, and thereby cooling, the warmer, moisture-laden atmosphere causes the condensation. That is why our fall mists mostly are formed in an exceedingly slight but still noticeable breeze. But in the case of these northern mist pools, whenever the conditions are favourable for their formation, the moisture of the upper


Over Prairie Trails - 5/28

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