In the photos it looks like they’re gliding across the water’s surface, the clouds reflected in an enormous, aqueous mirror. The Nordic skates on their feet look a little too big, a little too cumbersome, striking an odd juxtaposition with the skater’s elegant movements.
“On a good day, visually, your senses are on overload,” said Nordic skater Kevin Boyle. “There’s this amazing color spectrum. With the jet black ice, if you catch it when it’s new, there won’t even be a hairline crack and it’s like you’re floating. You keep going and it turns somewhere between a dark blue and black, and on a bluebird day it evolves into a clear blue sky. I get this feeling of, "Is this real? Am I really here?’”
I get that. It’s how I feel on top of a mountain, or while trudging through a dense forest. But this is different. This is the wide open. This is looking up at sky and mountains. This is walking on glass.
Birth of an obsession
Kevin got into Nordic skating after a childhood spent ice skating. About 10 years ago he was hit by the urge to pick it back up again, so he bought a pair of used hockey skates and hit the ice. A year later a friend introduced him to Nordic skating and took him out.
“I was resistant to switch to Nordic skates, but I finally did because I just couldn’t keep up,” Kevin said. “It just grew from there.”
Dan Spada had a similar experience. He skated as a child and figured the sport would be a great winter activity for his family. For years they traveled to the Rideau Canal in Ottawa to figure skate.
Sometime around the year 2000, Dan was at the canal and saw a guy on Nordic skates. The man said the long, silver blades came from Sweden, where people skate on the Baltic Sea.
Dan ordered a pair, and he was sold. The skates clip onto Nordic ski boots, so his feet stayed warm and comfortable. And then there was the scenery.
“There’s nothing quite like being out on a sheet of glass ice in the middle of Lake Champlain,” Dan said. “You see the mountains of Vermont, you see the mountains of the Adirondacks, you’ve got a slight wind at your back, and you’re gliding, effortlessly, for miles.”
Nordic skating is as addicting as it is fun, but lessons can happen fast and hard. Kevin and Dan were skating side by side on Lake Champlain during a bright January day when the ice opened beneath them.
Neither Kevin nor Dan recalled hearing a noise before they fell into the water. There were no warning crunches, no shotgun blasts of the ice separating. Skating side by side, they had unwittingly traveled pretty far on a surface that was three-quarters-of-an-inch thick.
One second they were deep in conversation, and the next they were plunged into a survival situation. This is why people should always skate single file — it’s a mistake they’re unlikely to make again.
The men needed to turn around and attempt to exit the way they came, where the ice was probably thicker. Then they had to use handheld picks to drag themselves back onto the ice.
Kevin has taken safety classes to practice getting out of the ice, so he had some familiarity with self-rescues. For Dan, it was a new experience.
“Your muscles just don’t function,” Dan said. “You lose your strength and you can’t pull yourself out of the hole, no matter how much willpower you have.”
Dan talked about a cold-temperature physiologist who has immersed himself in freezing water hundreds of times to study when people go into hypothermia. Dan watches videos of this every year before he goes out, and that helped him envision what he needed to do to get out of the water after falling in.
“I spread my arms and legs when I went in, so my head never went under,” Dan said. “That’s the first thing you want to do because when you go in, you’ll gasp, which can drown you.”
Getting out was difficult enough. But just minutes later he was back on the ice and they quickly moved to shore, which was about 30 feet away. The day was beautiful for skating — blue sky and in the 30s — but it was cold enough to make Dan’s clothes freeze, making them a lot harder for a shivering person to remove.
“People had to strip me to help me get my clothes off, and the whole time I was wondering what would have happened if it were 10 degrees and we were in the middle of the lake with a wind,” Dan said. “There’s risk, and you have to minimize that to be as safe as possible.”
The sunny side of ice
Now that you’ve decided you’re never going Nordic skating, consider this: it’s actually quite safe if you know where to go and if you’re prepared. Being aware of what can go wrong isn’t a scare tactic to keep people off the ice — it’s important because it’s the best motivator for being ready.
Location can help. The ice gets several feet thick in protected bays by midwinter, and there are many shallow ponds throughout the region where the ice gets several inches, if not feet, thick. A few inches is enough to skate safely on.
If you’re a first timer, rent a set of Nordic skates from a gear shop and ask where the best, safest location is, or better yet, ask if there are any nearby skating groups you can tag along with or hire a guide to take you out. A guide can teach you how to check the condition of the ice, including its quality and thickness.
Kevin explained that there isn’t much in the way of Nordic-skating-specific gear, so his outfit pulls from other winter sports. He even wears a wetsuit, which protects him if he becomes water bound. That’s probably not necessary if you just want to try the sport, but you will want to avoid cotton because it absorbs moisture — like sweat — which can make you cold and lead to hypothermia. Starting with tight thermal underwear, wear several layers so you can remove them if you start overheating, and put something that’s windproof over it all to shield your body from the wind.
Warm gloves are a must, and some kind of face and eye covering is recommended. Ski goggles are good for this. It’s also important to have some kind of floatation device in case you do fall in. A life vest might be a bit much; try a waterproof backpack with air trapped inside instead. Also, wear a helmet. Ice is hard, and falling is something even the most experienced nordic skaters do.
As Dan and Kevin talked about their love of Nordic skating, it was easy to imagine myself out there with them, blasting along 30 miles of cellophane with the wind at my back and the High Peaks in front of me. I think about all of the secluded backcountry ponds I've hiked past and I can imagine setting my snowhoes aside, clipping some blades onto my boots, and seeing the wilderness from a captivating new perspective.
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