Dog sledding adaptations:
Ice skating adpatations:
January 30, 2014
The Endangered Activities List
“I hope you two are brave,” Amy Sheldon said as she pulled her red pickup into a U-turn and glanced in the rearview mirror at my friend Ali. Balanced on a pile of ice skating gear in the backseat, Ali smiled back and tucked a stray red hair under her pink wool hat. “Because I am not,” Amy continued with a confidence contradictory to her point. “I don’t lose other people’s kids. That’s my rule.”
We both laughed and murmured appreciation on our parent’s behalf. Amy idled the truck onto the shoulder of the narrow two-lane road and engaged the parking brake with a mechanical thump. The tires teetered on the lip where graying cement met a gentle dirt slope leading from road to shorn hay field. Parked perpendicular to our skating route, the nose of the truck pointed to a line of trees marking the river we wanted to follow. The tail pointed to ice-covered hay fields, red-brown farmhouses, and the gray mountains just beyond the bend in the road. I glanced back at Ali with a nervous grimace. Taking responsibility for two untested twenty-somethings for the sake of adventure seemed pretty courageous to me.
Ice-skating this stretch of the Lemon Fair River was not the trip I had planned two days earlier, when I met Amy for the first time in a small Middlebury, VT café to schedule a backcountry Nordic ski adventure. January 2014 had caught me, a college senior, off guard and I was determined to get through my cliché bucket list of recreational Vermont activities before May. Backcountry Nordic skiing was winter activity number one and Amy, a prominent Middlebury community member, my ideal guide. I was a stranger to both, however, and arriving at our designated meeting spot a few minutes early I realized I had no idea who I was looking for. The small yellow shop was full of fit middle-aged women sitting alone, wearing jeans or athletic pants, sipping tea while conversing with their laptops. Googling her name frantically on my phone and trying – unsuccessfully – to bring up a headshot, I greeted every woman over thirty in Carol’s Hungry Mind Café with an apprehensive “Are you Amy?” With friendly Vermont manners, each person countered my nerves with sympathetic eyes and a reassuring “Don’t worry I’ve done that before.” Finally, while I accosted my fourth “Amy,” the real one walked through the door, overheard my pleas, and waved me to the counter with a bemused grin.
Amy intimidated me instantly. Although on the ice I later realized she was only half a head or so taller, Amy seemed to tower over me as we shook hands and made our way to a small round table in the back of the shop. She had blue eyes, a square jaw, confident shoulders, and wore her just-above-the-shoulder graying auburn hair pulled back from her face with a wide barrette. She also had an abruptly pragmatic way of speaking, cutting straight through the bushes I tended to beat around. While I attempted to bond by talking about the clear and sunny day outside, she quickly turned to the real purpose of my project and its one fatal flaw.
“Yeah, I don’t think we’re going to get any snow this week,” she said holding the large navy teacup up to her lips and taking a quick sip. My hands, naturally clammy to begin with, started all-out sweating. What could I do outside in the winter without snow? Certainly nothing I had planned for my last Vermont January. I managed a short laugh and another comment about “our crazy weather lately” before awkwardly steering the conversation towards Amy herself.
As the most recent Google search on my phone attested, I had cut the corners on my pre-interview homework. I had no idea, for example, that we were both “Midd kids;” Amy graduated from Middlebury class of 1988 and I was about to graduate class of 2014. I had also assumed, based on her knowledge of the backcountry, that Amy was a native Vermonter. When I asked if she grew up in the area, however, she said she came to Vermont to start college, just like me. Northern New Jersey was a little closer than my hometown in Texas, but we both loved our adopted state for similar reasons.
“You can’t go to school here for four years and not be touched by the geography of the place,” Amy said with a small smile that crinkled the corners of her eyes and the edges of her cheeks, “And you can make a really nice life for yourself here,” Amy gestured to the warm coffee shop atmosphere. A few of the women I accosted earlier had left their laptops unattended while they moved around the room socializing, unconcerned about electronic theft by fellow patrons. “You won’t make nearly as much money as you would in New York City, but it’s a quality life. You can really plug into the community and make a difference because everything is really human scale. Plus the lifestyle fits me – I can walk out my front door and go cross-country skiing or hiking without getting in a car. We have so much access to the natural world.”
Amy and I also shared an academic curiosity about the current lack of snow. I was an Environmental Studies major and she started her career working for land trusts in Addison County and now worked as a self-employed watershed analyst and natural resource planner. When I asked if she thought this thaw, this winter, was unusual she agreed. The cold season had changed unpredictably over her thirty years living off and on in Vermont: “I’m not sure there really is a ‘normal’”. She clinked the cup on her saucer as she set her cup down and I gave three small nods of understanding. Climate change at work.
“So we’ll just have to adapt,” Amy concluded when the conversation finally turned back to skiing. Although this meant completely discarding my original project, I managed a small smile. ‘Climate change adaptation’ was one of the popular buzz-phrases in the environmental community, though I had never thought of applying it to sports. “There’s plenty of ice this year. How’s your skating?”
Amy cut the engine and checked our GPS location against the flint grey clouds overhead. The digital display showed our truck parked on Lemon Fair Road, two narrow lanes divided by a graying yellow line in Weybridge, Vermont. With a population of 830 people spread across 17.61 square miles, it was no wonder the road cut through a sparse valley dotted with more cow barns and grain towers than houses.
Zooming out on the display, Amy traced our desired trajectory north along the right bank of the Lemon Fair River. We planned to follow the flow for three and a half miles north to Prunier Road, where we had left Ali’s car, and stop a few miles before the Lemon Fair met and merged with Otter Creek, the longest river in Vermont. With the wind barreling out of the southeast, the two-car system would allow us to skate from one road to the other with the wind always at our backs. We would skate considerably faster, save some leg muscle, and get off the ice before the sun set at 4:45 pm.
Satisfied with our parking spot as starting point, Amy clicked a button on the side of her handheld GPS to begin tracking our progress and put the device in the front pocket of her wind-proof Gortex jacket. As she got out of the drivers seat and walked around to the other side, small green-black track marks appeared in a small circle on the GPS screen. Later, these marks would show us circling stretches of blank white fields and crisscrossing through nude forests.
As Amy pulled on an extra sweatshirt and laced up her ice skates, Ali and I wiggled into black and gray snow pants. We actually had turned back to pick them up from my dorm after consulting Amy’s Vermont Gazette in a college classroom earlier that morning. In our lack of skating experience, we had both chosen to wear simple exercise leggings and compensate for the thin coverage with extra layers on top in the typically accepted college-girl style. Watching the wind blow stray chunks of ice across the hood of the truck and reading the temperature gage between 25 and 30°F, I said a little prayer of thanks for Amy’s foresight in one breath and cursed the waistline of my pants in another as the buttons squeezed my bagel-and-cream-cheese breakfast. The black pants used to belong to my mother back in her beauty pageant days and had a much more glamorous past than this rugged Vermont roadside would suggest.
Next, Ali and I struggled with our laces. Although borrowed from male hockey players, thankfully both pairs fit with three sock layers roughly filling the extra space. Amy finished lacing her own hockey skates in the five minutes it had taken us to put on our pants and now she pulled a hockey stick out of the back of the truck and set off down the slight downward angle of dirt and ice to the ice field below. She brought the stick along for “safety,” so that she could fish someone out of the river if they fell in, but it also held a degree of sentimental value.
“When we lived in Weybridge back when I was working for the land trust we used to come out here and play pond hockey every year,” she said, holding the stick in both hands. Later in our trip we skated over places she remembered playing with college friends and her now husband, Asher. A group used to gather regularly each winter to challenge each other to hockey duels. She even pointed out a swamp where a friend had broken through years and years before in a winter of questionable ice. Amy shrugged and said now that they lived further away in East Middlebury they rarely thought to come out here. She moved the hockey stick rhythmically in front of her as she turned and made her way down the hill. “And besides I prefer to ski, when I can.”
When the edges of her skates caught smooth ice, Amy turned and looked back at the two of us hovering by the truck. Lacking familiarity with un-groomed ice, Ali and I wobbled and pitched our way across the patchy surfaces, our arms flailing like the giant inflatable air dancers marking a car dealership entrance. As I concentrated all my thoughts on staying upright, one skate broke through and planted firmly in the solid dirt below while the other skidded away from my stuck leg. It was a constant, uncoordinated fight to avoid falling into the splits. Watching our stunted progress, Amy leaned on the hockey stick and laughed with her whole body, doubling over and shouting that she wished I had given her the video camera, because this footage was “priceless.” Frustrating as our progress was, it was also the first time we had seen Amy really smile all day. We started laughing at ourselves, which of course only made walking goofier.
Finally we reached the steady ice where Amy stood chuckling and checking her GPS again. She pointed out a wide course around the river’s “flow,” where the possibility of falling through was highest, and suggested that we stay on flooded and frozen hay fields where the ice looked thickest and closest to the ground. Better for a skate to break through and hit solid earth than send you into the freezing current. “Better to play it safe,” she reminded us. As we unsteadily set off, Amy explained that she led trips for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), hence the obsession with proceeding cautiously. Even though she made Vermont home, Amy loved Alaska and tried to visit every eighteen months or so for her NOLS work, which spanned summer and winter months depending on the year. The best part of the hiking-only trips, she explained after we mentioned a friend who had done the Alaskan hiking-kayaking hybrid a few summers before, were the opportunities to trail blaze. When she first started working for NOLS, there were no trails at all – way better, she said. It was just her, the kids, and the wilderness. Now… well, there were a lot more rules. Trips were safer, sure. But it wasn’t the same independent outdoor experience.
Crossing between field and forest as instructed by Amy’s trusted GPS, we marveled at the climactic clues in the river surface. Ice shelves scaled forest trees and hung off as bold remnants of the high November-December floods while we skated underneath on the newest ice. In some places, we could see water moving like a liquid film between two frozen sheets, marking our progress in air bubbles. Every few minutes the ice cracked sinisterly underneath our skates, causing us to scatter in all directions in a chorus of nervous squeals and whoops. We stopped frequently, scouting the color of the ice below us to determine its thickness, trusting dark ice over the cloudy-white variety. In shallow areas with ice of questionable thickness, we started sending Ali, the bravest and lightest member of our puffy-coat team, out ahead to scout the stability of the ice. Amy chuckled at Ali’s spirit and complete fearlessness when facing the possibility of wet feet.
The three of us ploughed forward, skating smoothly in some places and tripping on frozen sticks and waves in others. December had brought freezing temperatures and ample snow to Middlebury, fueling my daydreams of a white winter when I was in Dallas over Christmas break planning my last college term. But January kept no promises and evidence of my idyllic Vermont winter lay in small, gray patches in the surrounding hillsides after a persistent thaw. In the Northeast, the average annual temperature increased by 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970. Winter temperatures have risen twice this much. Winters see plenty of precipitation, but more as rain and less as snow on average than before. Some years, like this one, this leads to decent ice but terrible snow. Other years both surfaces are too weak to support iconic winter recreation. The frozen Vermont I imagined when buying snow boots my first winter here was disappearing before Amy moved into her freshman dorm. But hey, we were adapting with our ice skates.
Shouting against the wind, Ali asked Amy about her natural resource work. Befitting our current location, Amy was a river and watershed specialist. In one of her recent projects, she had helped design guidelines for paddlers (of canoes, kayaks, etc.) to prevent the spread of invasive species as they moved from waterway to waterway across the state of Vermont. It was a noble, much needed set of rules that, Amy admitted, would probably garner little adherence.
For example, one of the guidelines was to dry out your shoes completely between campsites to prevent spreading waterborne species, like giant salvinia or East Indian hygrophila, from one stream to another. But when Amy talked to someone who canoed and camped along Otter Creek for about a month in the spring, the camper admitted it rained every single day he paddled the trail. In that case, “he’s not keeping anything dry!” she exclaimed in her typically pragmatic way.
Ali nodded and murmured her sympathy for the project as she scouted a particularly questionable patch of ice. As a fellow environmental studies major, Ali shared our goes-without-saying climate awareness. “Does the river always freeze over like this?” she asked Amy, swerving to avoid a branch sticking out of the ice. “For some reason I thought rivers didn’t freeze because they move,” Ali laughed as she voiced her thoughts aloud.
“It depends year to year,” Amy answered after taking a moment to think. “But we can always get out and do something.”
Ice or no ice, this river told a story of environmental change in any season: runoff pollution from farm fertilizer causing ecosystem disruption and lake algae blooms, agricultural irrigation draining river wetlands crucial for bird and fish habitat, the aforementioned invasive species choking out increasingly rarer native plants, and the gradual shift in surrounding forest makeup as the temperatures climbed steadily upwards. Finding enough ice on the river to skate seemed a nicely ironic twist in our laundry list of climatic woes.
Our debate over how much snow we estimated would fall for the rest of the month lulled as we surrounded an enormous tree. Amy and Ali examined the evidence of recent floods and droughts along its trunk. In my attempt to stop, both feet slid out from underneath my ski-pant clad legs, launching me into the air and onto my backpack. It took a hand from Ali and a hockey stick from Amy to set me upright again.
Lingering by the tree to give my back and ego time to recover, Ali and Amy discovered they both hailed from Summit, New Jersey. The conversation turned to New Jersey diners, Summit hotspots, and high school athletics. “I was a big figure skater back in the day,” Amy reminisced. “Did you ever skate?” she asked Ali and Ali nodded. “Yeah I can tell. You’re actually both better than I thought you would be!” She said with a well-meaning chuckle. “But back then I was really good. I could do a triple axle!” Although she wore hockey skates like ours, courtesy of a friend’s son, Amy was a gold ribbon figure skater. She dismissed my calls for a demonstration with a playful nudge of the hockey stick, insisting that she still felt uncomfortable moving in skates without a toe pick. In response, Ali clumsily showed us her most advanced move, a fancy little dip acquired at age twelve. As for me, I pointed out the small ring of trees around us to demonstrate the size of the ice skating rink in the mall in Dallas where I grew up. I could count the number of times I had been there on one hand. I may have exceeded Amy’s expectations, but I still careened about in tight little circles every time I attempted to pizza wedge into a complete stop.
Checking the GPS for the first time in twenty minutes, Amy realized that we lost the flow completely in our pursuit of thick ice and were almost at the edge of the river corridor. To our left, where we should have seen the Lemon Fair, we saw only a poorly frozen field of yellowing plant stubble and ploughed dirt. GPS told us we would have to take a slight left, stomp across the field, and then skate back into the wind until we re-found the flow.
“I feel like a monster!” Ali yelled to me over her shoulder as she tromped ahead, arms outstretched for balance. Her skates broke through the thin ice to the dried grass below with a crisp crunch. The ice cracked and buckled into dozens of triangular chunks pointing up at her in protest. She turned, flashed a laughing smile, and continued dinosaur-ing a path to the thicker, sturdier ice. Following shortly behind, Amy and I placed our skates in Ali’s blade-prints, attempting to minimize further destruction.
Amy took the lead as we stopped to consult the GPS several times, not wanting to backtrack more than necessary. I began to resent the little thing as it continually instructed us to skate back the way we came, head first into the stubborn wind that made my hamstrings and butt muscles burn. We had ignored the wind easily when it propelled us forward; pushing against it I realized Amy’s gold ribbon had little to do with our progress so far.
After passing several trees that bent at somewhat familiar angles, Amy showed us the GPS with satisfaction. “Okay, so here’s where we were” she pointed to an uneven circle of clearly lost tick marks in the middle of the screen. “And this is where the flow is.” She used the arrow keys on the GPS’s face to tab left on the display. Click-click-click following the green-black skate marks. Finally the screen showed the marks hovering near a bend in the light blue river. “We should probably stick a little closer to the river from now on,” Amy said as she tucked the device back in her front pocket. “But be aware of the ice around you, we still don’t want to skate right over the middle of the river.”
As we settled into a rhythm once again, Amy remarked that the day was so nice and the skating so fine she wished she brought her dog, a liver-and-white Brittany spaniel named Cassie, along for the adventure. Cassie was Amy’s constant outdoor companion, tagging along for hikes, ski trips, even mountain bike journeys. Worried about her feet on the ice, Amy left her behind and instead answered our enthusiastic dog questions. “She’s achingly sweet,” Amy smiled widely and looked around, almost as if she expected Cassie to come slip sliding towards us. “She does this thing where she pushes her nose into you like a blunt instrument,” Amy laughed as she mimed the action. “She’s a character.” Amy and Asher adopted Cassie from a regretful nurse who worked long shifts and left the puppy crated for twelve hours at a time. Now, Cassie had free roam over the house and the National Forest in the Sheldon’s backyard. “If my dog’s happy, I’m happy.”
Bolder as the end of our GPS path gradually clicked into sight, the three of us slalomed quickly through trees and stumps as the branches grew thicker overhead. As we did so we wandered closer and closer to the river, watching the ice under our skates turn from white to black, black to white as we moved across it. Ali continued to take the lead while I pressed Amy for details about her work. Almost everything in her life revolved around spending time outside, from walking Cassie to watershed fieldwork analysis to Middlebury land planning. After holding positions as the Executive Director of the Middlebury Area Land Trust for seven years and the White River Partnership for five, Amy founded her own natural resource planning organization called Landslide, Inc. in 2005. Amy’s vision for Landslide was well researched and focused: the best way to protect the outdoors was to “link people to their landscapes” through soundly scientific planning processes so they could better manage their land. Although better land management wouldn’t bring more snow, it at least addressed environmental concerns within our control.
Abruptly stopping short, Amy held up a mitten-ed hand with a calm but urgent “do you hear that?” I skated past her and stopped by crashing into the nearest tree and hugging the trunk with both hands. At first, I only heard the sound of Ali’s movement up ahead. Then, the ice uttered a loud groan somewhere to my right along the outer line of trees separating where we skated from the fields of thinner ice. Pushing cautiously off my tree stop, I noticed the same dark-light variation we had followed in the open fields, only this time the white patches surrounded the base of the trees and the dark filled the wide spaces in between. Uneven white spots blotted a river of black ice.
Following our previous hypothesis, I moved quickly from the white base around my tree to the adjacent oblong dark patch. As I moved, it felt as if the ice bowed under my feet and I heard a series of small cracks followed by the same, far off groan as before. I called out for Ali, who continued skating ahead, and noticed that the ice I skated towards looked abnormally shiny, wet even. I veered back towards one of the trees and as I did, I noticed bubbles of water shifting with my weight, flowing along the edge between the black and white ice. I skirted across three more patches, avoiding bubbles and slick spots, to where Ali stood waiting.
Amy moved even more cautiously, making it about half as far as I did before calling for us to stop. As Ali and I continued to test the ice, Amy pulled out the trusty GPS and waited for it to determine our location. Shifting ice continued to sound around us, a guttural cracking that felt far away and right underneath our feet all at the same time.
“We’re right over the flow right now!” Amy exclaimed, tapping her hockey stick against the darker ice in warning. “It’ll be best to come out the way we came in!”
Ali and I turned and surveyed our escape routes. The dark areas seemed even more water-like than when I crossed it the first time. Unable to mentally map an easier route, I turned back the way I came, praying the same ice would hold me for a second time. I reached the safety of Amy and her hockey stick within a few minutes, and then turned to watch Ali. Instead of following me, she made a direct bolt for the open field beyond the trees that promised a dry or at least shallow fall through the ice. Where we now stood, the water was at least waist-deep.
Ali burst through the trees as Amy and I scrambled circuitously through the forest to meet Ali at the edge of the field. We regrouped for a moment, examining the digital GPS display and vowing not to go that far into the trees again. “That was as close as we want to get,” Amy said as we started forward, pointing through the trees on our left to a sleek surface that looked like stable ice until you stopped moving and realized that the thin frozen layer was a mirage for a swiftly moving current.
Ali took off in celebration of our escape. The thinner ice cracked violently underneath her skates until THUNK! One of her skates broke through the three-quarter inch thick ice, throwing her forward onto her hands and knees. Thankfully, instead of a cold bath, her right foot landed in a pocket of air and dried hay. We clamored around the foot-shaped hole and agreed that falling in here definitely beat breaking through a few minutes earlier.
Ali crawled across the ice on hands and knees until she found enough momentum to swing her legs underneath her elbows and stand up. Amy and I stood giggling at her antics before determining the general direction of Ali’s car and heading off, yet again, in search of it.
In a moment of icy confidence, Amy skated faster and faster over the smooth, wide field. She tucked her arms in at her sides and weaved the hockey stick expertly in front of her skates, then stopped quickly and turned in a graceful maneuver that would certainly have left me splayed on the ground. She skated backwards slowly as she waited for us to catch up, here eyes marveling at the expanse of gray sky dipping between the rough pinewood edges of the mountaintop skyline. “I left New Jersey because we would always get great snow and then it would rain and ruin all the skiing,” she said when we finally reached her, eyes still on the horizon behind us. “Now we get that up here in Vermont. And now there’s documentation that the climate in Vermont is like that of Jersey twenty years ago, when I left. We can still get outside and do things like this,” she gestured at the ice and gray-pink afternoon sky, “and we’ll always get outside somehow. But you can add winter sports to the endangered species list.”
A beat of silence then Amy laughed. “It sounds kind of dramatic,” she turned around and skated forwards again, “but it’s true in any given year.” Although National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA scientists were still debating where to fit 2013 within broader climate trends, both agreed that last year ranked as one of the hottest years on record. From what we could see, 2014 wasn’t starting off much better. Skiing was certainly an endangered activity this month.
Neither Ali nor I knew how to respond to the abrupt honesty of Amy’s statement, so we merely nodded and continued on silently for a moment. I had really enjoyed myself today – would I have missed out on this entire experience if there had been snow to ski? Would I have even considered skating over skiing had the choice been possible? Had I lost something by not cross-country skiing with Amy in her usual winter way? The adaptation had proved so exhilarating I had almost forgot it wasn’t my original bucket list project. And I couldn’t help but wonder if skating these flooded waterways would continue to be a more reliable pastime than skiing in coming years.
We skated on discussing lighter topics after spotting the car and the road across the remaining open field. Ali and I suggested movies we watched over break and Amy recommended wool sport bras for long trips in the Alaskan wilderness. While discussing a shared penchant for animated movies, we tromped the final ice ledge up to the road, unlaced our skates, and climbed clumsily into Ali’s car. Winding our way to Amy’s truck, we retraced our skated steps on the back roads of Weybridge. As Ali and Amy discussed Ali’s trip back to Summit for her sister’s birthday the next weekend, I watched the river pass quickly to our left as small snow blotches receded on the right. It had taken us about two hours to skate the Lemon Fair; we reached Amy’s car in about fifteen minutes driving.
We all bid ado enthusiastically, Ali and I thanking Amy profusely and her thanking us for insisting we brave the wind. “I wish we had turned around and skated back to my car! That way could have been bolder and had more fun. Next time.”
I agreed as Amy gave us each a quick hug. Maybe next time there’d be snow. Or maybe we’d find yet another way to get outside in uncooperative weather.