100% Natural Ice: Nordic skating on lakes and rivers
Last winter we had great snow. The winter before, we didn't. In a Vermont winter, only one thing is guaranteed: Ice. Good snow or bad, there's always ice on our lakes and rivers.
Cross-country ice skating or "Nordic skating", long popular in Canada and Europe, is on the rise in Vermont. It's simple and beautiful: No poles, no waxes, no hills to climb. Just push off and glide effortlessly, as fast and as far as you want, up to 25 MPH with a tailwind.
Nordic Skates are a new development in ice skating: aluminum platforms with cross-country ski bindings on top, and skate blades on the bottom. Imagine lacing up your ski boots, stepping into your bindings, gliding through a frozen landscape in the bright sunshine. And going twice as fast as you've ever gone on skis. This is Nordic skating. It's almost as fast as road biking,
but your feet stay warm and comfortable because you're wearing cross-country ski boots.|
If December brings cold temperatures but no snow, skaters take action. Armed with Swedish ice-testing poles and Ice Claws, we keep watch on a dozen Vermont and New Hampshire lakes, exchanging reports with local iceboating clubs. When the ice reaches a safe thickness, emails go out across northern New England, and we get together on short notice for recreational skating tours.
From Lake Champlain's bays to the Connecticut River's flatwater, we explore swamps, marshes, coves, harbors, ponds, lakes and rivers -- places that can be difficult or even impossible to get to in warm weather.
By early January, most everything is frozen solid, and the ice season begins in earnest. We skate almost every day until early to mid March. If it snows, we sweep the ice clear with an arsenal of snow-removal tools ranging from shovels and snowblowers to tractor-pulled sweepers, ATVs and pickup trucks. And if the ice gets too rough, we call in the Bambini, a tractor-pulled hot water tank on wheels that lays down a smooth new surface. On Lake Morey in Fairlee, the longest ice skating track in Vermont is about to take shape, thanks to a team effort involving the Montshire Speedskating Club, the Hulbert Outdoor Center and the Lake Morey Resort. Two and a half miles long, if all goes well, this skating track will play host to an all-day Winterfest on January 6. Winterfest is not just skating -- it's cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, old-fashioned ice cutting, dogsledding, igloo building, winter survival skills, food and music, all at the Hulbert Outdoor Center.
Two weeks later, on January 18, skaters converge on Lake Morey from all over the US and Canada for four days of long-distance skating events, including the National Marathon Skating Championships. There'll be races and tours for beginners to experts, from a 5K novice event to a 100K ultra-marathon. Most of us don't race to win, we just race to finish. But with 12 age classes (six for men, six for women) and nearly 50 medals to hand out, few if any skaters will go home empty-handed. "What a blast. I can't wait to do more!" said first-time skater Anne Donaghy after winning her age group in the 5K last year. And if you can't keep pace with the leaders on the oval track, consider this comment from Canadian Rod Willmot: "The benefit of being in the slow lane is that you get to see some really great skaters again and again and again!"
As they did last year, many skaters will bring their families and spend the weekend at Lake Morey, where the Hulbert Outdoor Center serves three delicious meals a day and offers its modern winterized cabins to the group. "It's a lot of fun to spend time both on and off the ice with fellow marathon skaters," says Canadian skater Paul O'Blenes. At the Saturday banquet last year, Jim Daniska from Michigan pulled out his guitar and brought the audience to their feet with his "Marathon Skater's Lament." Chances are he'll be back this year for an encore.
Long distance skating can be habit-forming. In case you can't shake the habit, there's a marathon series with races in Québec City January 26-27, in the Montréal region February 2-3, and the season-ending Dimon Sports Marathon February 23-24 in Lake Placid, NY. To fill in the gaps, you can travel to Ottawa, where the Rideau Canal Skateway is the centerpiece of the Canadian capital's Winter Carnival from February 1 through 17.
Where To Skate Outdoors
Where's the best outdoor skating on this continent? In Canada, of course. But Vermont and New Hampshire run a close second. Canada's crown jewels are the five-mile Rideau Canal in Ottawa; the six-mile Rivière L'Assomption in Joliette, Québec northeast of Montréal; the 2.5-mile Lac Masson track in Québec's Laurentian Mountains; and the 1.5-mile Lac Beauport track near Québec City. Be prepared for smooth ice. Canadian ice maintenance crews sometimes work all night, drilling holes in the ice, pumping up water and flooding the ice to resurface it. And if it snows, they start plowing and snowblowing before the snow stops falling. Canada's best recreational skating events are Festi-Glace in Joliette from January 25 through February 3, and Winterlude in Ottawa from February 1 through 17. In Vermont, the lakes abound with early-season black ice, which is not only smooth but exceptionally strong, despite the eerie sensation of being able to see through it. But black ice is usually short-lived. Once the lakes are snow-covered, our choices narrow to the plowed track on Lake Morey; a half-mile loop on the Retreat Meadows in Brattleboro; and the Catamount Family Center's 250-meter oval in Williston. Across the river in New Hampshire, the best plowed ice is on a one-mile track on Little Squam Lake in Ashland, and a quarter-mile ice sheet on Occom Pond in Hanover. Recreational events on outdoor skating tracks include the Tour of Squam Lake in Holderness, NH on January 5; the Lake Morey Winterfest in Fairlee on January 6; a Skating Party & Barbecue at Hanover's Occom Pond on January 12; the Squam Winterfest in Holderness on January 19; and the Occom Pond Party in Hanover on February 9.
Most of us grew up skating on hockey and figure skates. And many of us quit skating outdoors because it just wasn't fun anymore. In hockey skates, our feet hurt and our toes froze. Figure skates were even worse, with no ankle support, and those deadly toe-picks on the blades. The worst part was changing into your skates outdoors in the cold. First your fingers and toes froze, then your whole body became so chilled that you could never get warmed up again. It's no wonder so many of us switched to cross-country skiing. Nordic Skates changed all that. Now you can put on your cross-country ski boots indoors, without freezing your fingers and toes, then clip on the blades when you step onto the ice. That's when you really notice the difference. Skate-skiing boots and "combi" boots have lots of ankle support and lateral stiffness, just what you need. And the glide! Nordic Skate blades are longer, so they glide farther. Is the ice bumpy? Full of cracks? Covered with snow? Not a problem. Nordic Skate blades have long curved tips to handle the rough stuff. You don't need to skate behind a Zamboni or a snowplow -- you can go anywhere. On Nordic Skates you can cruise effortlessly through up to four inches of fresh powder snow atop the ice. The long tip is the Swedish contribution to ice skate design. What about skating with free heels? It's actually an advantage. In the 1998 Winter Olympics, speedskaters borrowed the idea from cross-country skiing to create "clapskates," and it worked. Now it's our turn to reap the benefits.
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