July 11, 2005

 People and Places

Flying feet
Skaters find thrills, adventure on popular new blades
February 20, 2005

Where to get started
Skaters should always verify conditions before heading out.
Dewey's Pond, Quechee — 1,500-meter plowed loop. Skate rentals are available at Wilderness Trails Ski Shop behind the Quechee Inn. Call (802) 295-7620 to reserve skates and verify conditions.
Occom Pond, Hanover, N.H. — 600-meter loop. Skate rentals are available at the Nordic Skater, 326 Main St., Norwich. Call (802) 649-3939 to rent skates and verify conditions, or log on to
Lake Morey, Fairlee — 5,000-meter loop. Skate rentals are available at the Nordic Skater (see above).

It's alarming at first, how fast we're going, flying across a frozen surface like polished granite with nothing under us but 15-inch-long blades. The ice has never seen a Zamboni and never will, but the long blades — much longer than those on hockey or figure skates — absorb the ice's imperfections, making for remarkably smooth gliding.

Like Eric Heiden on an Olympic oval, my friend and I are flying around a pond in Quechee at speeds more common to road cycling than ice skating. But on our feet are the same boots we wear cross-country skiing; instead of skis, they're clipped onto blades called Nordic skates that leave our heels free.

If Hans Brinker had had a pair of these, he wouldn't have needed silver skates.

Long popular in Sweden and Canada, Nordic skating has developed a following in northern New England thanks largely to Jamie Hess of Norwich.

Part of the appeal, of course, is the speed rush — Hess says he can cover 15 to 20 miles in about an hour, the same distance he could do on a road bike, but without the hills. And it's an alternative for those like him who enjoy skate-skiing, the cross-country ski technique based on the V-shaped motion of skating.

"If the weather is lousy for skiing, it's usually good for skating," Hess says.

In fact, that's how he discovered Nordic skating. The former software engineer took up speed skating in the 1990s during a winter when snow refused to fall. A self-described cross-country ski fanatic, Hess was going nuts without any exercise. "I stared out the window wishing it would snow," he remembers. "So I finally decided to think about ice skating."

At first he took his old hockey skates to nearby frozen lakes but soon found a pair of speed skates. Then in 1999, he heard about a 50-mile skating marathon on natural ice in Sweden — the Vikingarδnett, or "Viking run." There, he toed the line with 5,000 other skaters, most participating in the touring class using Nordic skates, the first he had ever seen.

Meanwhile, Hess duked it out with about 200 Swedes and Dutch in the racing class and covered 50 miles in 3 hours, 43 minutes — a speed of about 13 mph. The winner — a flying Dutchman — traveled closer to 20 mph.

Back home, he wrote about his experiences for the Rutland Herald and immediately began getting calls from others interested in the sport.

"That started it all," says Hess, who soon quit his job and opened the Nordic Skater, a shop in Norwich. He also founded the Montshire Skating Club, which now has 100 to 150 members, depending on the season. Members get on Hess' e-mail list, and when he finds good ice for skating, out goes a message.

  • While some skaters like competition, such as the National Marathon Championships held in Lake Placid in January, most skate recreationally — another way to fend off cabin fever.

    The Montshire Skating Club clears paths on a few local ponds and lakes. But Hess prefers finding good ice and exploring. Wild skating, as he calls it, is a Swedish favorite. Like backcountry skiing, it's skating on unmanicured, unmaintained ice.

    Early this month, Hess organized a cross-country — or more aptly, cross-ice — adventure on Lake Champlain. About 30 skaters, ages 5 to 64 and including at least one who had never been on Nordic skates before, met on the Vermont shore in Charlotte on a warm, cloudless day and began skating toward New York across the lake's smooth black ice.

    But they didn't get far before smooth black ice.

    But they didn't get far before they passed an island "with the most incredible ice formations," says Hess. He postulates that waves crashed against the island and the spray froze on the trees and rocks at the shore, forming icicles 10 to 20 feet tall. The walls of icicles made the island look like a sci-fi movie set.

    "We could skate under some," Hess says. "I could have happily stayed there and photographed icicles all day long."

    They skated onward, though, and ate lunch on the New York shore. When the 5-year-old grew tired, he took a nap as his parents pushed him across the ice in a jogging stroller. When they reached Vermont again, some turned around and skated across the lake once more.

    "We just had to watch for cracks where the ice was starting to pull apart," says Hess. "We sidestep across cracks."

  • That leads to the topic of safety, something else Hess learned from the Swedes.

    "On a big lake, conditions change," he explains. "Cracks are opening and closing all the time. You can go back the next day and find a new crack. On Lake Champlain, we have to test and retest."

    Nordic skating poles, which look like a cross between cross-country ski poles and a javelin, are essential safety equipment for wild skating. Jab the ice hard, and if water appears through the hole, go somewhere else. They are also useful for balance when crossing bumpy ice or pressure ridges.

    Across his chest, Hess wears a harness with ice claws — plastic grips with a steel spike protruding from one end. Like a flight attendant doing a pre-takeoff safety demonstration, he puts on the harness, then grabs the claws in each hand to show how he would pull himself back onto the ice should he take a cold swim.

    He also carries a "throw-bag" of the type familiar to whitewater canoeists and kayakers. It's an aerodynamic bag filled with polypropylene rope (that floats) with a weighted end that he can throw to someone who has fallen into the water. Dry clothes in a sealed plastic bag are also essential. Although he carries this equipment every time he ventures onto wild ice, he has yet to use it.

  • Spring, believe it or not, is the best time for wild skating, professes the Montshire Skating Club's newsletter. Why? Because "the snows melt away, re-exposing the ice that lay buried for much of the winter."

    Added to the hundreds of miles of wild skating opportunities in New England (on places like Lake Champlain, Lake Memphremagog and the Connecticut River), the club maintains a 1,000-meter-long plowed path on Dewey's Pond in Quechee and a 600-meter loop on Occom Pond in Hanover, N.H. Lake Morey, in Fairlee, reportedly has the longest skating trail in the country — 5,000 meters. Safety isn't as much of a concern on these "groomed" paths, because if the ice can hold an ATV with a snowplow, it can certainly hold a few skaters.

    Flying along the path on Dewey's Pond and chatting with my friend, I am more concerned with falling down than falling through. But soon we lose track of time. Two hours pass, and we stop only because we're hungry.

    "It feels like we just did a nice easy road ride," my friend says as we clip out of our rented blades. Except it was more peaceful than a bike ride. With no cars to honk at us, the only sound was our blades clacking against the hard ice. And more than a few exhilarated cries of "Whoa!"

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