Nordic Skating: Skating on the Wild Side
by Eric Teed
OK, I admit it, I am a junkie. I am a confirmed self-propelled speed junkie. Skis, bicycles, kayaks – if I can suck some oxygen and move at speed through beautiful landscapes, I am a happy man. But last winter season, I found the ultimate ride. It is called Nordic skating or wild skating. Long skates clip into standard Nordic ski boots giving the glide of a speed skater along with ankle support and warmth. I had not skated in over 15 years, but I was quickly able to move with grace at incredible velocity across ponds and lakes. I am amazed at the amount of ground covered with surprisingly little effort. The sensation is one of, wow, how can this be? I feel like I am defying some basic laws of physics. But skate for a length of time and up your wattage output and you have a powerful workout. You have to try this.
For me it started when visiting Sweden in the spring, and I saw a magazine cover with a man skating on a vast lake with full backcountry gear and a long pole. Of course I could not read any of it but I could not get that image out of my mind. Back home I trolled the Internet and found the Nordic Skater (www.nordicskater.com). I called and got Jamie Hess, the acknowledged top American enthusiast and proprietor. “I went to skate in Sweden and it changed my life. You can take a subway from Stockholm to a lake, skate a hundred miles and take a train back. And a skating club outing will draw 4,000 people to skate 50 miles,” says Jamie. “I call it wild skating.” I was hooked.
Nordic three-pin boots with skates fixed at the toe and heel is the traditional go-anywhere set up still popular in Scandinavia. But modern combination or skate ski boots which allow free heels are the modern way to go. You can walk to the ice with your boots on clip in and go. The blades are designed to ride smoothly over imperfections in the ice. Ice claws, which dangle from every skater’s neck, are mandatory safety kit for pulling yourself out, should you go through the ice. In fact, the Swedes practice going through and recovering with great enthusiasm. Also ice poles, which are used to test ice for thickness and provide stability on rough ice, are useful for bigger bodies of water and the more adventurous side to the sport. And safety-minded skaters carry a small pack with a change of clothes in a dry bag. You wouldn’t want to have to cut your day short just because you fell in, would you?
Cathy Painter who lives in Kattskill Bay and skates on Lake George is typical of Nordic skaters I have met in her boundless enthusiasm for the sport. “It’s just magical,” she says over and over. “The distance covered effortlessly is exhilarating and empowering. I love to skate through long stretches of Forever Wild forest. I completely enjoy the thrill and the appreciation of the environment, enjoying winter. I feel like a kid again – so free. I want to go out and play and I don’t want to come in. It’s so much fun!”
Skaters of course like all athletes also engage in competitions. But unlike the highly technical speedskaters of Olympic ovals, skating marathons are organized at varying lengths and are open to all comers. Many thousands gather each year for marathon races from Sweden to Quebec. This January the Vermont Ice Marathon will be held the on the 14th and 15th on Lake Morey in Fairlee, Vermont. Lake Morey is two miles long and should deep snow cover northeast ice, they maintain America’s longest recreational ice skating trail.
In Lake Placid the town will plow a one- to two-kilometer oval on Mirror Lake this winter. Also in Lake Placid you can skate on the 400-meter Olympic oval where Eric Heiden won five gold medals in the 1980 Olympics. Hours for speedskating are seven days a week from 4 to 6pm and 10am to 12pm on weekends for five bucks a session. That is a big bargain for perfect ice, with views of the High Peaks, and the pleasure of getting passed by the true speedskaters. Nordic skating and speedskating are essentially one and the same technique – speedskating being a bit more defined with more, well, speed.
If you want to up your game and are interested in speedskating, John Dimon of Dimon Sports in Lake Placid is your guy. He says that on an oval it is about the turn. “You get up speed on the straight and your body weight and inertia carry you through at speeds greater than the sum of the parts. It is like putting a rock in a sling – but you’re the rock. The first time you experience that feeling you remember it the rest of your life.” Not only does his shop provide rentals and sales, but they organize instruction and are connected to the Adirondack Speed Skate Club. He also sells Nordic skates.
Another closely related sport is Nordic skate skiing. For skate cross country skiers, Nordic skating is a natural for getting out of the ski center. And skating provides cross-training benefits to both skate ski and classic technique. John Dimon who qualified for the Olympic Trials in biathlon for the Sarajevo Olympics says, “If you can glide on a one millimeter skate, your weight transfer and glide is going to be more controlled and longer on skis.” And skate ski poling can be directly applied to ice in some conditions, as I found out when skating the Connecticut River last year with Jamie Hess. Two in our group were accomplished skiers and used their ski poles to great advantage on rough ice surfaces.
For me the sport gets most interesting on big bodies of water, when it is advisable to travel with a group, and at least one experienced leader has a safety throw line and an ice pole for probing for thin ice. That magic came together last year when Lake Champlain froze solid, and word went out on the mailing list for www.nordicskating.org. A group of 30 people met Jamie for the most extraordinary experience of skating across and down the lake. Big water adds the element of crossing pressure cracks and route finding for the best ice. It is a bit intimidating at first to come onto open water half a foot wide in the middle of a big lake. But after learning to negotiate these obstacles, and finding glass ice on the other side, it all adds up to pure bliss.
Closer to home, local ponds provide a perfect few hours when the weather is cold and no snow covers the ground. But even an inch or two of snow on top of iced over water does not stop us. One weekend I skated on secluded ponds with two inches of powder covering black ice. The feeling was the same as if there were no snow, but it was perfectly silent. Another day to live for!
It used to be that as winter settled in and it was cold but no snow covered the ground, I lamented. But now I simply want it to be cold, very cold... My dream this year is for the ice to be good on Lake George. Bring on winter!
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