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January, 2010


by Valerie

This past month, while visiting Wisconsin, I was reminded of an activity that belonged in a distant part of my past: ice skating. The area of Wisconsin where we were staying was far too snowy to skate outside, so that recreation took place in an indoor rink. I had only once before skated inside, and found it completely boring to simply skate around in circles, along with dozens of other people.

The ice skating I enjoyed while growing up in Illinois was far different. It was outside. This had the drawback that sometimes the ice was covered with too much snow, it had frozen badly, it was not thick enough, the wind was cold and strong, or it was warming and the ice was covered with water. All of these problems seemed minor. There were still plenty of times when the ice was perfect and the temperature endurable.

I didn't really get the hang of ice skating until I was about 9 or 10 years old. Before that, I remember that skating seemed like quite an effort, as my weak ankles bent and I struggled to go forward. Then suddenly, one day at Saganashkee Slough, I got it. Skating was easy. I could glide with almost no effort. It was exhilarating. From then on I rarely fell, could skate for miles without becoming exhausted, and looked forward to every new adventure.

Although we used various lakes, rivers, and creeks, our favorite skating place was always Saganashkee. This was a roughly rectangular lake, not particularly deep, about a half mile wide and a couple of miles long. There were many dead trees still standing within the water, as well as downed logs near the edges. The lake was a favorite ice fishing haunt. In fact, we could check the thickness of the ice by looking at the holes drilled by the fishermen. If I remember correctly, there was a small sign informing the public that skating was not allowed on this lake, but that never stopped us.

Val's nieces, Amie (age 6) and Isabella (age 8) zip around their mother, Vicky, in a Wisconsin skating rink. Photo taken Dec. 30, 2009.

Every year, the ice seemed to freeze differently. It might be completely white, with tiny bumps all over, presumably because it was windy when it formed, or snow had melted on top and created the annoying texture. Skating on it made my head rattle. At least once, the ice froze perfectly smooth, and was so clear that we could see the fish that died and floated up to lodge against the ice. The clarity revealed the dark water below, and it felt like we were skating on air. In a few places, air bubbles were frozen in place, like frosted, flattened marbles.

There was sometimes a bit of snow on the ice. If it wasn't too thick, the only problem was that it covered little cracks and twigs, so that these would be unseen hazards as we zipped along. During very cold weather, the ice might crack as we skated, with gunshot-like retorts, loudly echoing across the lake. Other times, the lake did not freeze completely across. The open water, though, was always visible before we got too close, so we skirted around that.

We took our two schnauzers with us out on the ice. They managed okay with the slippery surface, but seemed to associate the flat ice with a sidewalk. When they needed to relieve themselves, they wouldn't do it right on the ice, but would find a muskrat den sticking out of the surface and use that. They had been taught to never pee on the sidewalk.

Because a skating trip on Saganashkee lasted quite a long time, it was easy to play around as we traveled from one end of the lake to the other and back again. I learned to skate backwards, or make curly circles in the ice. Because we could see our skate tracks, my sister and I devised a follow-the-leader game. The first person would wind around the trees, stepping over logs, and making the path as complicated as possible for the second person to follow. Sometimes my legs would be quite sore afterwards because of lifting the heavy skates so many times over obstacles.

Skating could be rather strenuous, and if we were bundled up against the cold we'd get so warm that we had to take off our mittens or open up jackets to cool down. Sometimes we'd rest on the logs, sitting and enjoying the sunshine and cold breeze. Other times we could not sit at all because everything was covered with wet snow. The trickiest times were in the spring when the ice started to thaw. That thin layer of water made for fast skating, but we also did not want to fall as we'd get soaked and become too cold to stay out.

One of the best reasons for skating was to enjoy the scenery and the wildlife. Obviously, we couldn't be out in the middle of the lake during summer, so the different perspective was a delight. We'd see birds and the occasional red fox in the distance. To me, there was no comparison between sledding and skating. When we played on the hills, after the fun of sliding down, we always had to walk back up, but with ice skating, it was like gliding downhill the entire time.

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