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The Rush of Black Ice

by Amy Engeler

Published November 2006

Macho ice adventures are no longer something you need to fly to Scandinavia for. Amy Engeler cuts loose

When Lake Champlain finally came into view behind some snow-dusted pines and upended boats, my stomach turned over at the darkness of it. All black, sucking up the sunlight on a bright winter morning, the enormous frozen lake—435 square miles of smooth ice—looked more like a void than a body of water.

Eight of us had convened in a quiet inlet south of Burlington to skate across the lake, from Vermont to New York, in the new sport of wild skating, with a guide leading the way. The danger we faced on this expedition was clear once westood on the bay beside a few white buoys that were stuck, half-submerged, in the ice. As if in a glass-bottom boat, we could see right through the six-inch ice to the cold water below, where brown algae swayed and the occasional silver minnow moved lethargically along the lake bed. It took no paranoia on my part to imagine crashing through, skates and all, into water so cold that it would squeeze the wind out of me. Not only that but the ice seemed to be taunting us, making loud noises, like the low-pitched moans of a humpback whale.

"That groan, that's a good sound," said our guide, Jamie Hess, a faded red cap above the deep winter tan on his face. He matched us all up with the special aluminum blades from Sweden, nearly twice as long as those on figure skates, designed to sail over the bumps and cracks in natural ice, and also hung ice claws around our necks, one for each hand. (Basically a nail on a handle, the claw allows a person to pull himself out of the water onto slippery ice, the way a polar bear does.)

"It's the high-pitched sounds that should worry us," he continued brightly. "They mean thin ice." Our group—a set designer from Chicago, a documentary filmmaker, a 70-year-old psychologist, and a local outdoorswoman with a blond Labrador—all nodded silently. Hess then checked the ice by thrusting a pointy ice pole down repeatedly, sending chips flying. "If you hit water on the first try," he said, "that's not safe."

All at once, the lesson was over and Hess pushed off toward the mouth of the bay, leaving behind the calm inlet with its secluded houses and snowy lawns. I'd been looking forward to this very moment for weeks, and yet I felt terribly nervous. I stayed right behind Hess, keeping my head down, my life preserver tight on my back, and watching the ice crack under his blades, long vertical seams that ran out in all directions as the ice eased under his weight.

Truth be told, I knew what I was getting myself into. Wild skating may be new to America, but it's been fairly popular in Sweden since the 1970s. A decade ago, I tried it myself (for Condé Nast Traveler), strapping a life preserver to my back to follow a line of Swedes far out into the fog on the frozen Baltic Sea, as the brackish ice creaked beneath us, sometimes sinking enough to wet somebody's feet. The Swedes, bored with their long winters around Stockholm, discovered that if they pushed the limits of ice strength to the very edge, they could skate for miles on ice only three inches thick. If they fell into the sea, well, they pulled themselves out with picks, ropes, and other, specially designed ice-safety equipment, changed their clothes right there on the ice, and kept going. They learned that a person could survive in 32-degree water for up to 20 minutes. Long-distance skating, or långfärdsskridsko, as the Swedes called it, seemed to me a peculiarly local thing at the time, suited to the Nordic personality and climate. I had lots of good fun and aquavit and returned home figuring that macho ice adventures were something you flew to Scandinavia for.

Published in November 2006. Prices and other information were accurate at press time, but are subject to change. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip.

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