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On thick ice

Bumpy, crusty, freezing -- it all makes for a wild time when you go skating in a natural setting

LYME, N.H. -- Susan Hardy was getting ready to take to the ice. No Zamboni. No bleachers. No roof overhead.


She was sitting on the grassy edge of frozen Post Pond in the Upper Connecticut River Valley, ringed by hills, shoreline homes, and the dormant swings and picnic tables of a small beach.

"This is the only kind of skating I do," Hardy said. "If there is good ice, I skate on lakes, ponds, and rivers."

Hardy, a technical writer from Norwich, Vt., lives on the Connecticut River straddling New Hampshire and Vermont, a place she paddles and swims in summer. But on those days the river can hold skaters, she's out.

"Skating on the river, that's special," she said.

And all it takes is an e-mail to get her there.

Welcome to wild skating.

The e-mail comes sometimes 48 hours in advance, sometimes less. Check the inbox and if you've got mail from Jamie Hess, chances are it will direct you to a frozen body of water that has not been maintained. Not groomed, flooded, blown, nor swept. Just wild.

Hess, a former software developer who opened a Norwich skate shop after a 1999 trip to Sweden where he got a taste of Scandinavian long-distance skating culture, is a founding member of the nonprofit Montshire Skating Club. The approximately 100 members of the Norwich-based club skate indoors and out. There is indoor short-track speedskating, outdoor long track and marathons, and outdoor recreational skating, including lake tours and wild skating.

I had heard about wild skating and contacted Hess in early fall, asking to be put on the list so I could give it a shot.

It took a couple of weeks, and finally a message came in early December that was hopeful about skating for the upcoming weekend. But I had other plans. So again, I waited.

On a Saturday came another message saying ice on Post Pond in Lyme had reached a safe thickness and it was mirror-smooth. Meet at 10 a.m. Sunday.

On the same day that news of Saddam Hussein's capture was being broadcast to the world, I found myself grabbing an egg sandwich at a general store in Lyme village, passing the white steepled church, and continuing on Route 10. An unmarked dirt road led to the shores of Post Pond. Over the course of late morning to early afternoon, 10 or so club members would show up to skate around and across the pond, some 1 miles in circumference and about mile across under the gray foreboding sky.

Arriving earlier than the skaters was a trio of ice fishermen; each watched and waited on metal folding chairs as smoke rose from the hearths and stoves of area homes. Locals came by to ask about ice conditions, one thinking he might come back with his iceboat, but the wind was still. Over by the swings, a couple of children, parents watching, skated with hockey sticks in hand.

Soon enough, skaters started showing up. Serious competitors, fair-weather wild skaters, and first-timers -- all would take to the ice.

Matthew Vincenti, a Thetford Center, Vt., biomedical researcher, was the first to arrive for wild skating. I asked him about its appeal and getting that e-mail.

"I was excited today because I was waiting to find out where the ice was," Vincenti said. "You have two choices. Jamie goes out and checks everything, or you can check it yourself. I feel more comfortable going where there are other people, so if you run into trouble, you're not by yourself," he said.

Hess arrived, with son Charlie. It's Hess who checks the ice for its strength. Carrying a backpack with a throw bag or lifeline familiar to paddlers, an ice testing pole, and a set of dry clothes in a plastic bag, he tightened the pack with a waistband that he says would act as a flotation device should the ice give way. He skated around the pond, tested the thickness, and proclaimed it safe. Several of the skaters had around their necks what looked like a neon orange necklace. This wasn't jewelry, but ice claws, two plastic grips with steel spikes in one end. Fall in, use them to claw yourself out.

Hess loaned me a pair of ice claws and some skates, too. They were Nordic skates, which use a cross-country skate-ski boot and a free-heel blade, 15 to 22 inches long.

I don't wax nostalgic over childhood memories of indoor rinks or outdoor hockey ponds. To me, skating is a contact activity between my body and the ice, with the ice winning. The number of times I have gone skating could be counted on my curled toes as I gingerly stood on the frozen shores, holding onto Hess's shoulders as blade and boot finally connected.

There is no railing to hold. No boards to crash into to stop. No music. Graceful it was not, this maiden voyage on wild ice. Graceful was watching the true skaters float by, with bright colors against the muted sky, picking up speed, arms pumping in seemingly effortless movements of earthbound flight. I thought back to Peter Flanagan, a Hanover lawyer I met on the shore as he laced up his skates. He likened skating on unkempt surfaces to cross-country skiing in the moonlight or during an eclipse. It is something to be experienced.

"You never know where you are going to get good ice," Flanagan said.

This day the ice was good, a mosaic of black, gray, and white. Various cracks, bubbles, and fissures made it like a canvas. Starbursts -- called octopus holes -- were formed under the frozen surface. A dog watched from shore.

"When conditions are perfect, you can see the fish swimming under the ice," said Martha Cochran, a Hanover teacher. "You can sometimes see the vegetation right under you when you are skating by. That's pretty cool."

They skated in groups, in couples, alone. One could skate anywhere, explore the shoreline, marshes, coves. There was freedom; it was peaceful. Even when you heard the ice groan.

Talk with skaters and they tell you conditions are different every time -- like bumpy, smooth, or crusty. They stay warm, dressed in layers and windproof clothing, but also because they are active.

Post Pond is the smallest place for the club's wild skating. All-day affairs can be had across the Northeast on lakes like Champlain, George, Memphremagog, Sunapee, and Squam. The club also skates on waterways like Lake Morey in Fairlee, Vt. (where Lake Morey Winterfest is held on Jan. 11), and Occom Pond in Hanover (site of the Occom Pond Party on Feb. 14). Though most of the members are from Vermont and New Hampshire, there are a handful from Boston, Western Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Montreal.

"When people find out they can skate outdoors, they jump to it," says Hess.

Though December's plentiful snow has been gold for skiers and snowboarders, it isn't that way for skaters. No snow is gold. But snow melts, gets blown away by wind.

And if the conditions are right, an e-mail can get you a wild time on a pair of clip-on skates.

Marty Basch is a New Hampshire-based writer.

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