When I was a homestead kid growing up on the Kenai Peninsula, my sisters and I would tromp a half mile out to a little pond in the middle of a muskeg to go ice skating. Being farm folk who’d moved to Alaska from Ohio, we dressed without wool or down outdoor clothes, and our boots were four-buckle Arctics pulled over our shoes—good galoshes for puddles and rain, but lousy for winter boots. We marched across our frozen garden, over the berm-pile and through a band of trees before breaking out into a muskeg with just enough breeze pushing through to nip our cheeks. By the time we got to the pond, our toes were tingling and faces red with winter blush, but we were eager to glide effortlessly across the ice, so we sat in the snow and stuffed our cotton covered feet into stiff leather figure skates and laced them up.
The ice on the tiny pond was uneven and often hidden by snow or crusty ice, but we would scoot around with our ankles bending inward and arms flailing. We grabbed at each other to keep ourselves from falling and then fell anyway. It wasn’t long before our ankles ached, our feet were numb, and our fingers were too stiff to unlace our skates. After skating for less time than we spent getting there, we retraced our steps to the house and propped frozen feet on the oven door as we sipped hot chocolate—the only real value I found in ice skating.
Though I tried several times, ice skating for me always seemed to end the same way, and after those experiences, I had enough of ice skating for a lifetime. It was one outdoor activity I resisted even when I was dating my wife, Madelyn, and she loved to ice skate. Take me up a ski lift (even though I’ve never been), ask me to go hiking, backpacking, or snowshoeing. I’ll even pack firewood through waist-deep snow, but please don’t ask me to go ice skating.
Three years ago, Madelyn bought me Nordic skates, and my attitude changed. I became a dedicated ice skater. Now every year, I hope for some skating time before the snow builds up on the lakes and ponds. Nordic skates are a Scandinavian invention that allow the skater to clip blades on cross-country ski boots or even hiking boots. The clear advantage is that a person can walk in the boots, then, when they get to the ice, step into the blades and off they go. Not only are they more comfortable and easier to work with, the long straight blades cruise smoothly over rough ice, and they also plow through snow and glide long and straight. Skaters don’t need smooth ice to have a good time. These skates are fast, and at times they actually do make skating feel effortless!
People must adjust to the nature of winter or stay indoors, and ice skating can help motivate us to get outside. Some winter months we are overwhelmed with cold and snow, while others we face a stark assault of ice and wind. In a normal year we are cross-country skiing on a couple feet of snow by Christmas time, but some years, like 2013 and 2014, while we wait around for snow, we go looking for ice. We often have a few weeks in November and December to skate before the snow builds up on Bear Lake and we transition to skiing. When the snow arrives we start packing ski trails around the lake that usually last through April, unless the temperature rises and the snow melts. When that happens, we are back to skating again.
On Bear Lake near Seward, last year we had to wait until after Christmas before we were skating. When winter arrived — albeit later than usual — it came without snow, so we made do in the first week of January with incredible ice. At our doorstep we had the finest of natural skating rinks, acres and acres of polished ice. Instead of skiers we had figure skaters, kick-sleds and hockey players, and even an iceboat, white winged like a transient swan. One night, Madelyn and I went out on the ice after dinner during the full moon. We skated in the moonlight, enjoying its glow on the ice with the dark forest and white peaks in the background. Without headlamps we cruised along on our great glass table of a lake as if we owned it all. In the distance we could see the star-like headlamps of neighbors also having an evening of fun.
I was so inspired by last year’s ice and its polishing wind that I spent an hour in the garage building a new skate sail. This skate sail is handheld and measures about sixty-six inches on a side. I made it from a six by eight plastic tarp cut to a square and attached to one inch spruce spars with staples and zip-ties. The wood pieces are tied together the same way. The design is very much like a kite. A classic Alaskan homestead setup made for function and expediency, not beauty. Like a boy with a new sled, I was out at first light ready to try out my new contraption. In gusty wind of about 10 to 15 mph, I was soon flying as fast as I would ever want to go, and hooked onto another reason to love ice skating.
Once I was out on Bear Lake just before dusk, when the sun was behind the mountains and the warmth of the day had passed. The dogs and I left the house and walked down to the dock on the wooden walk, still not covered with snow. I put on my Nordic skates and pushed across the ice into the cold north wind with the dogs trotting along behind. Snow was sparse, so I was ice skating in February, which is pretty rare. We’d had a bit of snow a week before, but it came in on the wind and what little fell on the lake blew away. On this outing, the lake was about 50/50 ice and snow with much of the snow so thin that I could skate through it easily on the Nordic skates.
A skating trip down to the end of Bear Lake and back is about four miles, probably more by the time we wander back and forth, taking breaks to ogle ice formations, cracks, and bubbles. Sometimes I get caught up in finding fossil-like leaves and fish trapped in the ice or looking through glass-like ice at the lake bottom. During that evening’s skate the dogs and I had the lake to ourselves, and one would think it would be quiet and peaceful. The sky was clear and the mountains were silhouetted against a navy blue sky. Beneath my feet, however, the lake was in turmoil. The impression of a frozen lake—a still, bucolic scene of rigid silence, the water turned to immovable stone—is not always the case. When one walks down to the shore and listens, you may hear the lake rumble and bubble, sometimes with a deep thrumming and an occasional boom.
“The lake is talking,” we say, and some nights it wakes us with its clamor. The noise is from movement and breaking as the ice contracts in some places and expands in others. If the snow hasn’t hidden them, you will see cracks all over the lake ice, some large fissures an inch or two wide where ice has flexed and broken. On that day, I stopped on a patch of ice that was window clear, and I could look down at the cracks reaching deep into the ice. The cracks were reassuring because they showed the glass-like ice to be at least a foot thick. But, even knowing this, I become uneasy when the ice rumbles beneath me. Suddenly I feel less secure and my hearing tunes to the voice of the lake, which seems to bubble beneath me as if my weight is bending the ice, and it is groaning beneath me.
Logic says this uneasiness makes no sense, one man cannot bend ice of that thickness. But the fear is there and the lake suddenly seems larger and louder. I feel as if my skates are playing a great frozen drum of ice as I pound across it, suddenly more eager to be on shore. As I near home I relax and laugh at myself, but the lake rumbles as I do, reminding me that caution is rarely a bad idea. If you get a chance to skate on a frozen lake and experience talking ice, your view of frozen lakes will change forever.
When the ice is this pristine and the imagery so rich, I think I can wait for snow a while and just enjoy the ice. Snow is sometimes late in coming, but by tomorrow that could all change, and we might have more snow than we know what to do with. For now, we skate and we sail. Lucky us.
Dan Walker is a homesteaders’ son who grew up to become a teacher and a writer. He has worked as a chef, innkeeper, merchant seaman, fisherman, and carpenter. Drawn from these varied experiences are blogs, essays, professional articles, and fiction published in magazines and literary journals such as the Journal of Geography, Alaska Magazine, and We Alaskans. Dan has over thirty years in education and was named Teacher of the Year for Alaska in 1999. Today, he shares life on a lake near Seward, Alaska with Madelyn, his college sweetheart and muse.