ZIPPING around a skating rink, your world enclosed by curving boards, you see only the white surface of the ice, broken perhaps by the blue and red center and offsides lines. But outside in a Vermont winter, you can glide free for miles under the sun and the sky, and on the very best days see through clear ice to the stony bottom of a shallow lake or stream, while chilled fish swim beneath your skates.
Then there's the sound, the rhythmic light scraping of the skates and the cracking of the ice, punctuated by the primal whale-like singing made below the surface as the ice thickens.
But these days, few people skate on nature's ice, free from shuffling crowds and Zamboni breaks. Rob Multerer, who tracks skating trends as director of marketing at the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee, a huge indoor Olympic training center that is also open to public skating, estimated that even in the Midwest, where northern lakes stay hard-frozen for months, 90 percent of skaters now learn indoors, free of weather worries. At Pettit, 10,000 skaters took to the public rinks in just the few days from Christmas through New Year's weekend.
But a growing number of skaters are heading outside — helped by European skates just finding their way to this country — for what one enthusiast calls wild skating. One weekend last month, nearly 100 people zoomed, arced and glided around Lake Morey in central Vermont, about 50 of them on a racing oval and others on their own leisurely trajectories nearby or heading out on a two-mile trail, established as safely thick and skatable, down the length of the lake.
It was early in the season, and a day's worth of rain followed by colder temperatures had frozen into a thick sheet — the coveted black ice: smooth, glassy and disconcertingly transparent, and free of snow on top. Twigs and leaves showed clearly below the surface, suspended in the ice. Close to the lake's edge, branches jutted from the smooth surface, a sort of deep-freeze driftwood.
To veteran Winter Olympics watchers, the racers looked familiar, mostly wearing speed skates and tight racing suits, bodies bent forward, hands clasped leisurely behind their backs and muscular legs all fluid motion.
Far more arresting were the skaters cruising on what looked like a cross between ski boots and kitchen knives — the essential equipment of true wild skating, the Nordic ice skate.
Most Nordic skates are bladed platforms clipped into the bottom of cross-country boots the same way skis are. Some are even made to clip into plastic insulated winter hiking boots.
Looks aren't the point. Nordic skates are to skating what mountain bikes are to cycling. They move easily over bumps and cracks — the obstacles well remembered by people who did grow up skating outdoors — and even through thin layers of snow on top of the ice. With the strong ankle support of ski boots, they help skaters keep going for miles. And even in single-digit temperatures, they keep feet warm.
NORDIC skaters can cruise for 25 miles down a frozen lake and then back again for dinner. They could ski cross-country to a remote pond, switch from skis to skates without ever taking off their boots, and glide out onto the ice.
Jeff Tolbert, a filmmaker, was wearing Nordic skates as he cruised around Lake Morey, following the action with his camera. It was a quiet day for Mr. Tolbert, who enjoys skating across Lake Champlain from Vermont for lunch in New York State, or zipping up and down the Connecticut River for 60 miles, reveling in the scenery and solitude. He calls outdoor skating "real" skating. "I was never interested in going around in circles," he said.
Mr. Tolbert started Nordic skating after he moved to Vermont and met Jamie Hess, whose organized New England skating tours have made him the guru of the sport.
Mr. Hess, 50, who created the label wild skating and sells Nordic skates from his shop in Norwich, Vt., discovered Nordic skating in Sweden in 1999 and came home a convert. Now, besides running a business built on the skates, he races, organizes events and keeps an ever-growing e-mail list to announce long-distance skating tours, often on short notice because of changing ice conditions. He even lends Nordic skates to anyone who wants to try them.