Flying on Ice
My foot wobbles back and forth on my Nordic ice skate. I put out my hands to steady myself. I catch my balance and continue propelling myself forwards, my blades sloppily sliding on the bumpy ice. I almost fall again and curse under my breath, bemoaning the person who invented these skates. I take a deep breath and continue skating, eventually feeling more comfortable on my feet. I look at the landscape, admiring the mountains and the expansive icefield all around me. A little unwillingly, I start to think this isn’t too bad.
This is the first of my many adventures on Nordic ice skates. These skates are a Swedish development in the latter half of the 20th century, modeled after a skiing technique and involving attaching an ice blade to a Nordic boot with a Nordic ski binding. The blue color of my own skates is their best feature. I wear them proudly, even though they are crappy and made with low-quality steel. The length of the blade varies per skate, mine veering on the shorter side. Frequently, many people look at them disconcertingly and ask if I made them myself. (In truth, I bought them online for cheaply and attached even cheaper bindings). Regardless of the quality of the skate, they are not only comfortable but also fast, and therefore very fun. At least these are my thoughts as I zoom across canals, lakes, rivers, marshes, or really any kind of water that freezes in the winter. Eklutna Lake, the destination of my first excursion, is a large glacial lake in Alaska and a water source for all of Anchorage. Due to its sheer size, however, the lake rarely has good conditions for skating. In the winter, Eklutna is either covered in mounds of snow or simply not frozen enough and too dangerous to skate on. I was lucky enough to be able to skate on at minimum ten inches of pure, untainted black ice (transparent ice and the first to form when the lake becomes frozen). At that moment, however, I had no idea I would investigate Nordic ice skating for my class project at Middlebury College. I would get to experience the ice of Vermont in addition to that of Alaska.
My addiction for the sport grew as I discovered more places to skate including areas where the ice was not as thick and there was a chance of falling in. While I was terrified of being thrown into freezing cold water, I was mesmerized by the present danger of the seemingly innocent, glistening ice. Now I have learned various safety protocols, including testing ice with a pole before skating on it, bringing a throw rope, and carrying ice claws which are metal spikes attached to a handle, used to grapple the ice and pull oneself out.
Growing up in Alaska, I have skied, snowboarded, sledded, ice skated, snowshoed, snowmobiled, ridden on a dogsled, and done pretty much every basic winter sport. Skiing was my favorite, most likely because my parents forced me to waddle around on skis ever since I could walk. My skiing career continued with my entrance into the Polar Cubs group of a local ski association, developing as I raced throughout high school.
Recently, Alaska has been subject to warmer winters, a pattern horrifying skiers and other winter-sport lovers across the state. Constant thaws and refreezes plagued the ski community, causing for a unique pattern of ice and grass on the ski trails.
One man, however, did not join in the despair. During the particularly cold winter of 1995-1996, Jim Renkert and some of his friends donned hockey skates and began to explore the backcountry ice of the Alaskan wilderness. Fascinated by the sport and undaunted by the lack of snow, Jim continued to ice skate throughout the winter. The next winter was even colder and he was able to realize his childhood dream by participating in the Elfstedentocht, a 200 km skating tour of the eleven cities in the Friesland region of Holland. There are 16,000 skaters that brave the cold temperatures to participate in the epic tour so renowned in Dutch history. Racers wear different types of skates even though they generally use speed skates, a type of ice skate incredibly popular in Holland where the shoe is already attached to a long blade. Participants trying to skate 200 km in hockey skates most likely will be scoffed at. Nordic ice skates, however, are perfectly acceptable, particularly since their rudimentary design makes them similar to the original Dutch strap-on ice skates.
For the first time, Jim used Nordic ice skates, borrowing them from a Dutch friend. He observed their advantages over other skates including the foot-and-a-half-long blade with a curved tip like a ski, allowing for gliding over ice instead of sinking in. He admired the way the skates rocketed over bumps and cracks in the ice. The use of a rigid but comfortable, well-insulated Nordic ski boot was perfect for long distance travel. Above all else, he fell in love with the speed of the skates. After completing the tour and returning to Alaska, Jim not only brought back the coveted Elfstedentocht Silver Cross, a participation award for finishing the event, but also a pair of Nordic ice skates. As winter continued deteriorating, skating began to catch on. Nordic skiers removed skis and put on Nordic ice skates, eager to discover miles upon miles of ice.
After deciding to pursue my project on Nordic ice skating, I needed to learn more about it in Vermont. I became frustrated since everyone I asked at Middlebury had no idea what the sport was. After my explanation and their occasional interest, our conversation would end. I finally learned something about ice skating in Vermont while attending a Friendsgiving celebration in Bristol with my Serbian friend and her host family. With my best networking skills, I was able to find someone who not only told me about a Yahoo group called Vermont Nordic Skating but also encouraged me to get in touch with Jan de Vries, a Dutchman who had been skating for almost 80 years.
* * *
Jan de Vries is whizzing forward on an icy canal on his Nordic ice skates in Holland. He is most of the way through a 200 km race but does not feel tired. His focus is on the rhythmic pattern of his skates. Right. Left. Right. Left. He does not notice that there are no other skaters around him. He is about to pass under a bridge with many people standing there. Suddenly, he hears cheering. He wonders what the noise is all about. He looks around and realizes that against all odds, in the Elfstedentocht of 1954 with 16,000 other skaters, he is somehow alone. The people are cheering for him, the lonely, straggling skater. After a brief moment of glory, he passes under the bridge and once again is skating by himself, surrounded by cow pastures and windmills.
I hear about Jan de Vries’ first Elfstedentocht race many years later and on my first outing into Vermont. After driving across remote backroads and a wintery landscape to arrive to Underhill, Vermont, I sit in Jan’s living room. I am sipping on rooibos tea and Jan is drinking coffee. I stare at the man across from me. His snow-white hair is emphasized by the bright, turquoise couch that he is reclining against. He has a kind, weathered face. He is wearing a Norwegian sweater, simple black pants, and soft, brown moccasins. The greatest sign of old age are the wires from his hearing aids that are protruding from his ears.
Jan has participated in four Elfstedentocht skating tours, the same tour that inspired Jim Renkert to bring back Nordic ice skating to Alaska. Jan tells me that the eleven cities are actually more like villages and have waterways connecting them to create the 200 km of skateable ice. In a wrinkled but steady hand, he shows me four Elfstedentocht Silver Crosses that he has from the race. I imagine him receiving the award like every other weary skater upon crossing the finish line, ready to be done and warm up frost bitten extremities.
“Are these like Olympic medals?” I ask, having heard about the glory of participating in the event. Jan just laughs. His bushy, white eyebrows crinkle together and his blue eyes twinkle. His glasses move upwards barely a centimeter.
Jan shows me the old Dutch wooden ice skates he wore for his first two Elfstedentochts. They are brown and weathered with a crusty leather strap serving to attach the contraption to a shoe. A long metal blade, slightly rusty, makes up most of the skate. To sharpen them, Jan uses a self-made device consisting of parallel metal frames on a wooden platform, holding the skate in place. A sharpening stone is then moved back and forth over each blade. Jan then brings out his modern Nordic ice skates, similar to mine although noticeably higher quality. He no longer ice skates anymore but used these skates right up to his last days on the ice.
I ask about the history of Nordic skating in Holland. Jan takes me to his collection of old, dusty books, all written in Dutch, depicting skaters in a linear formation with arms behind their backs and legs perfectly poised to attain the most power out of each stride. “Do you speak Dutch?” he inquires, and quickly realizes I do not when I cannot even correctly pronounce the word ‘Elfstedentocht.’
Jan explains that his books discuss the Eleven Cities Tour and the history of skating in Holland. I admire the expansive collection and examine their covers, wishing in that moment that I could understand his native language. Jan describes that the event started in 1890 as a casual tour where friends skated together and stopped in each village for a drink. The tour slowly transformed itself into a national event, one that everyone either participates in or watches. I later found out that the first official race was in 1909, and only 14 Elfstedentochts have taken place since then.
Jan laughs as he remembers why he did not race a fifth time. Right before the tour of 1997, his skate gets caught in the ice and he falls, breaking his wrist and deciding not to race. His dad asks him why he does not compete, and after he responds that his wrist is broken, his dad exclaims, “you do not need your arms to skate!”
The race of 1997 was incidentally the last Elfstedentocht that has occurred. Much like Alaska, Holland has been experiencing warmer winters. While melting snow and refreezing of ice allow for excellent skating on lakes, the Eleven Cities Tour requires completely different conditions. A minimum of six inches of ice must freeze over the entire 200 km, calling for an extreme cold spell. Despite changes in climate, skating is still extremely popular and many Dutch people are hopeful, waiting for the 48 hour notice signifying the next Elfstedentocht.
My next adventure in Vermont is at a Skate-a-thon in Fairlee, something I find out about through the Yahoo group. The event taking place at Lake Morey involves skating around a 4.5 mile loop, the biggest skating track in the United States. The Skate-a-thon is a fundraiser for Vermont trails and the entry fee includes free rental Nordic ice skates, lunch, and raffle tickets upon completion of each lap.
On a sunny morning, my friend Greta and I set out on a two hour drive on windy roads going over hills and mountains to Fairlee. We arrive at a large resort on the shore of the lake. After walking into the building, I am surprised to see the greatest number of Nordic ice skates I have seen in my life, arranged in an orderly mannerly to be rented out. Greta borrows a pair of the shiny, new Nordic skates. We laugh, observing her longer blades made out of much finer steel than my own.
We go outside and start skating on the track. The ice is bumpy near the start but gets better as we move farther out. Greta is a Nordic skier, just like me, but hasn’t been on skates since the age of seven. I can’t help but laugh at her loud exclamations each time she goes over a bump and almost falls, bringing me back to a few years ago to when I first discovered the sport. I remember being terrified of instability, hesitant to move my skates at all for fear I would instantly fall. I think back to a skating lesson Jan gives me during my visit.
“Skating is just moving your feet backwards. If you want to go faster, you bend your knee more,” Jan demonstrates, gracefully performing the motions. He easily balances on one leg and moves his knee lower down than any other old man that I have seen.
Once you feel comfortable just sliding your skates back and forth, the scariest part is fully committing to each stride. As soon as you master that, you attain the balance necessary to execute the movements and can use that power to propel yourself forwards, feeling the joy of skating. Then you trust not only the ice but also yourself. Although this is what I tell Greta, she just gives me a miffed expression and continues to slowly shuffle back and forth. She eventually starts gets the hang of it, however, as we keep skating around the loop.
The sun is high overhead and wispy clouds hover above the mountains in either direction. A bright yellow plane zooms into view, landing in the center of the lake. There are people of all ages around me—ranging from families with small children to young couples to grandmas and grandpas, most displaying Nordic ice skates. One particular grandpa rockets by us in black spandex and speed skates, lapping us multiple times with the same long, knee-dipping stride that Jan has shown me. My friend and I complete three laps, marked off each time by volunteers in bright yellow vests who smile at us and ask if we are high schoolers. We wonder if we are in fact high schoolers when we pool all our tickets together to win a giant, fluffy teddy bear, slightly impractical since the raffle would occur after our two hour drive home. (I did in fact win the teddy bear but it is still to this day stranded in Fairlee, Vermont, or as I like to think, in the arms of a happy child).
After skating at Lake Morey, I become hungry for more. My next destination is an abandoned marble quarry in Dorset, Vermont, flooded with water in the wintertime to form a 200 by 600 foot natural ice rink. On a sunny afternoon after a brief cold spell, several of my friends and I head out to Dorset. After some directional difficulties and a mile approach up an icy road, we arrive at the quarry. We walk into the underground entrance and are greeted by giant icicles hanging overhead, dripping into small pools below. Ice is built up in bubbly and spiral-y formations close to the entrance. Although seemingly out of place, the colorful granite on the walls fits in with this mystical, cave-like structure. We explore different chambers, various forms of ice in each one, and even find a large opening extending at least 150 feet upwards.
We eventually get to the ice rink after a short walk, the light disappearing slightly as we venture farther into the quarry. The ice is smooth and black, filled with white methane bubbles and disguising the near 80-foot depth of the water. While I glide over bumps and cracks on the surface easily in my long-bladed Nordic ice skates, I still stumble over bottles and other litter strewn upon the ice.
Even though I enjoy the unique beauty of the quarry, I feel constrained. I close my eyes and I am back in Alaska. I am moving faster on ice than I ever have before, propelled by the metal blades of my Nordic ice skates. I feel the wind rushing by me, turning my cheeks red and nose pink. My toes tingle from the cold but I do not notice, my feet moving in a rhythmic dance between me and the ice. The mountains on either side of me blur into a hazy mirage. There is nothing ahead of me but pure, untouched ice. I feel like I am flying.