Northern Wilds Magazine

On the Water in Winter: Skating Inland Lakes

By Kate Watson
Northern Wilds Media, Inc

It’s not often that a PFD serves as a four-season piece of gear, but something about zipping up this fair weather friend in freezing temperatures makes me all warm and fuzzy inside. I’m going to need it. The temperature is touching 15 degrees.

Today we’re on the same waters we ply with canoe paddles during the warmer months, and at the boat launch there’s the familiar anticipation of heading out onto the lake, but this time it’s different. It’s dark and we’re in for a winter-only treat: gliding on the water rather than through it.

As we lace up our ice skates, swearing under our breath at the biting cold, the air swells with a deep whale-like thrum, followed by a sharp pinging sound. The ice is expanding and freezing hard as the temperature falls. Skates securely tied, I struggle to pull my mittens over my numb fingers. Why are we subjecting ourselves to this? We must resemble portly little penguins bundled up in layer upon layer of wool, Capilene, fleece, and down. But it’s an opportunity we can’t miss: flying across the ice, speedy and almost limitless in our exploration of the lake.

The lakes froze smooth and thick this year as cold temperatures showed up well before meaningful snow. With calm winds and freezing nights, the water was transformed into solid glass. A quick scrape of the skate blade sweeps powdery snow aside, revealing smooth, black ice. We shouldn’t need the lengths of rope we’re carrying, but you can never be too prepared.

Before we head onto the ice we drop a headlamp into a Nalgene bottle, twist it clumsily closed with mittened fingers, and set it in the snow. Its light will guide us back after the boat launch disappears in the dark.

The long, smooth strokes of our skates propel us away from shore as we follow the beams of our headlamps onto the lake. Swish, swish, swish, the snow sprays aside leaving slashing tracks as we speed past hillocks of shaved ice left by fishermen’s augers.

I burrow my face deep into my neck gaiter, and wince as my nose touches the layer of frost collected from my breath. But we’re lucky to have a clear night. As we near the center of the lake I stop, click off my headlamp, and tip my head back. The dark sky completely fills my vision, and as my eyes adjust, the stars shine brighter and brighter. It’s always a joy to see the sky like this, stretching huge and unchallenged by manmade light. It makes me feel small and very alive.

Before long our legs begin to ache, the winter muscles atrophied from neglect. We have months of skate skiing, telemarking and snowboarding ahead of us, but these quiet nights on the water are the perfect start to the season. Chilled but content, we turn and skate for shore as the lake looses one more soaring groan.

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