Thursday, January 6, 2011

ON STEEL AND WATER – The Marvels of Ice Skating

Back when I played college ice hockey, I used to love being the first player out on the rink before a game or at the start of a new period. That was when the ice was pristine, freshly planed and recoated by the Zamboni. I always thought to myself it was like skating on butter, a metaphor not as much for the physical qualities of fresh ice as for its deliciousness.

For one exquisite lap, mine were the only marks on that translucent, milky surface. I could take one powerful stride and coast the length of the rink. Even more fun, though, was
taking that first lap fast, with long, powerful strides. I'd look behind me at the graceful, outward sweeping lines my blades were etching into the ice. Each one threw a dusting of bright white snow, chiseled by the angled steel edge. The pleasure of that pattern reminded me of the trail of swirls one leaves canoeing across a glassy lake.

In those moments, skating was a sort of meditation.

In those moments, skating was a sort of meditation, a deep awareness not just of the esthetics, but of that sublime progression of muscles, motions and balance that comprise a skating stride. It starts with a subtle lowering of the center of gravity as hip and knee contract and weight begins transferring to that leg.

The extension comes, almost imperceptibly, from the buttocks; then the thigh thrusts outward while the knee straightens; and finally, like the exclamation point at the end of a command, the ankle straightens sharply, the toes and ball of the foot driving the blade's curved toe into the ice and impelling the transfer of weight back to the other leg. That last little snap of force makes a distinct munching sound as the blade bites deeper into the ice. Instead of snow, little chips of ice fly.

Skating outdoors on natural ice is very different. Ideal conditions are rare. In fact, in my lifetime, I've only experienced them a handful of times. Instead of the silky, milky white of man-made ice, the perfect natural ice is black. In fact, it has that paradoxical quality of clear blackness, like the water of a pond rich in dissolved organic material. Black ice occurs only when it's below freezing for some time before the first snowfall. And there can't be lots of wind while that bare ice is forming, or it will have humps and waves.

Cracks wind through black ice like white ribbons on edge.

Once in a great while, a fleeting, surreal image 
will catch your eye: a fish frozen into the ice.

Skating on perfect black ice is a rare and wonderful experience. Because it nearly always occurs early in winter, you're always wondering if the ice is thick enough to support your weight. Supposedly only three inches will do it for someone walking, but will that hold true when all that weight's concentrated on a 3/16-inch blade? It only seems to sweeten the experience knowing there's twenty feet of ice water below. As if to remind you, dull thumps and snaps reverberate through the ice as it contracts and shifts.

Outdoor skating's normally confined to a rink—that is, whatever portion of the ice you've managed to clear of snow. But with black ice you have the whole lake. If you're lucky—with extraordinarily smooth ice and some wind at your back—you can coast all the way across the lake.

Another wonder of black ice is that you can see what's going inside of it. Here and there cracks wind through the ice like white ribbons on edge, showing its thickness. Bubbles are frozen in time. Once in a great while, a fleeting, surreal image will catch your eye: a fish frozen into the ice. You stop and look, wondering how it could possibly have not been able to swim away as the water, passing from 33 to 32 degrees, started to set around it.   

I know there are other skaters out there. What are your observations?


Charlie said...

Jeff: Do you remember the skating we did on the Charles River around 1972-3, when I was living in Cambridge. It seemed cold enough, but I remember stepping into ankle deep water at the edge of the river. Skating has been such a big part of my life, too. Hockey until I was 53. I went skating at a public rink in Harwich this part was great, I'm still strong like bull......but now I'm afraid of falling, so I was just a little shaky. No stick to hold me up. None of my boys had a skating apptitude, but........ that's the way it goes.


Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey Chas -- Yeah, skating's been a big part of my life too, though on wheels the past 20 yrs or so. Still have the thighs for it -- I easily max out the Nautilus machines for spreading/ closing the knees/thighs.
Have you ever thought about the aesthetics of skating -- such a beautiful motion. And the sound...

Charlie said...

the speed is what I always liked....and the gliding. I also liked top corner stick side.....

Jeffrey Willius said...

Speed? You? No, seriously, you were the greatest!

Phil said...

Skating was always an integral part of my youth, growing up on Mallard Pond in the east end of North Oaks in tne 50s and early 60s. We must have shoveled rinks down below our house for almost twenty years, and in our heyday of weekend pond hockey games with the neighborhood "gang," we'd skate sometimes from dawn to dusk. It wasn't always just hockey though; there were special treks out into the cat tails to find hidden trails or play hide-and-seek. There were cross country portages onto neighboring ponds where our friends had their own rinks. There were long loops around the island watching from down on the ice how our neighbors happened to be spending their weekends and hoping to see Jan or Lois or Carol. And there were always the birds - nuthatches, downys, chickadees, and jays. Cardinals, juncos, crows, and the occasional thrill of a peliated. I can conjure up more memories of skating in those halycon high school years than any turncoat wrestler deserves to have. It was always the scrape and hiss of blade, seeing our breath under brilliant blue skies, the camaraderie of brothers and buddies, and the irresistible tug of that benevolently silent, bracing, oaky, snow-draped winter landscape.


Jeffrey Willius said...

Beautiful, Phil! Thanks for commenting. You are now officially a cyberpath!
One other ice memory comes to mind: up at Todd's cabin, we'd use a hand auger to drill an elaborate network of holes, all connected at different angles -- none of them all the way through to the water. Then we'd drill that last inch in one of them and watch the water surge up through the whole complex.

Charlie said...

I remember the ice auger well in Wisconsin. I bought my Dad an ice auger in 1992, and for the first time in his life, we cut a bunch of holes in White Bear Lake. It must have been 30 inches thick, maybe 400 yards out into the lake from our dock area. I also tried to cut a few holes closer to shore to "flood" the small rink we created by pushing snow. I couldn't get it right, but I only did it a couple of times, and I didn't spend any winters in Minn. after 1975. The Roe brothers know how to flood a pond rink.....they had talent. Phil, did you ever pop a hole and let the waters flood your North Oaks spot??

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey Chas -- I'm glad I didn't make it all up! To flood a rink, how do you get the water to rise up above the rim of the hole?
Thanks for following!! Don't hold your breath for Phil to respond -- a self-avowed technophobe.

Charlie said...

Jeff: Remember how the water flooded our ice cyclinders in Wisconsin. And then it seeped out all around. When I did it at White Bear, I got too much water; so maybe I didn't have the right equipment to push the water around evenly. Or maybe the hole was too big for the small area I flooded. I don't know. I envisioned a smooth sheet of ice. No such luck.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Yup, I'll bet the Roe boys knew the trick!
Off to Mexico the the month of Feb. but I'll stay in touch.

Gary Noren said...

Here's a poem I wrote about a dozen years ago...about the time of most of these other comments:

First Ice

The air is full of anticipation of another season
My probe tells me I have 2 1/2 inches
It's time!
Forgot my picks at home
I'll stay close to shore

Rocks on the ice
I'm reminded of my last skate last season
A header in a snowstorm at dusk
My probe also functions as a pry bar
to break lose this year's collection

The early ice is flawless
No fear of slipping into cracks
Strong strides with the wind carry you effortlessly
across this northwoods lake

Early ice doesn't crack beneath
It tears
and belches out in the distance
Early ice is black
Rocks and sand and weeds are visible

Snowflakes threaten to shorten the season
Weather reports verify
five to eight inches by Wednesday
Strap them on soon
It's not to be missed!

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