Wild ice skaters reflect on changes to popular winter pastimes
By Chloe Bennett
Gliding across a vast waterbody is what wild ice skater Elizabeth Lee calls her frozen trips to “the wild blue yonder.” She is part of a group of such skaters who rely on stable ice to support them through miles of safe passage. Living near Lake Champlain, Lee said she and other skaters wait for deep freezes before trekking across the ice. This season has not seen many of those, she said.
Because of fewer freezes, Lee, who is the executive director of the Essex County Cornell Cooperative Extension, said the Adirondacks’ wild ice is more precarious than ever.
“That’s the biggest change over time if you ask me, is how incredibly unpredictable it is,” Lee said.
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Other forms of winter sports, like ice climbing and hockey, also depend on strong ice. Warmer winters in the Adirondacks threaten that ice, making the activities less attainable. Jon Rosales, climate scientist and St. Lawrence University professor, connected sports and climate change in a 2021 study focused on the North Country and Adirondack region.
Under the current emissions rate, Rosales and his team found that there would be no outdoor ice thick enough for hockey players to achieve an “expert” level or 10,000 hours of play before age 18. By tracking practice hours at the Canton Minor Youth Hockey Association, Rosales calculated 7,000 hours unaccounted for, meaning some players likely practice on backyard ice or on local ponds and lakes.
“For many years, those of us working on climate change have tried to figure out a way to make climate change itch, maybe even portray it in a way where people realize it’s going to affect them and it’s going to hurt a little bit,” Rosales said.
The idea of tracking hockey expertise occurred to Rosales while watching his own kids practice and noticing several cars idling, releasing gas and particles into the atmosphere. He said some drivers left their vehicles running for the entire practice.
“They’re disconnected from climate change, from the impacts of climate change and their contribution to climate,” Rosales said.
Winter sports are entrenched into the Adirondacks’ culture and economy, which is why Rosales said the study isn’t just about hockey, but a northern climate’s way of life. Connecting the broad social and scientific implications of the climate crisis with something familiar like hockey could motivate more people to act, he said.
“Maybe I’m realizing this too late, but you really have to connect it to people’s lives,” Rosales, who teaches a class on climate change, said. “And I think then people start noticing a little bit more. So it’s certainly not just about hockey, it’s about anything we really care about and its connection to the climate, which is changing.”
For former New York Ranger goaltender and environmental activist Mike Richter, the prospect of losing the Adirondacks’ winter culture outweighs the loss of professional sports in the Adirondacks. Richter, who graduated from Lake Placid’s Northwood School in 1985, said warmer winters could indeed alter players’ personal development.
“Putting the NHL aside and a career in that aside, competition, sportsmanship, teamwork, all those things that we love sports for, evaporate when there’s no snow,” he said.
Richter lives in Connecticut and travels to the Adirondacks to play hockey with a group that includes Vinny McClelland, former owner of The Mountaineer in Keene. The group depends on strong ice around Cascade Lakes and other spots for their games. Although the loss of ice-based recreation may seem inconsequential to people who do not participate, Richter said, it is a microcosm of climate change’s effect on cultures across the globe.
Climate solutions including ceasing fossil fuel emissions would ease those cultural changes already at play in the Adirondacks, Elizabeth Lee said while reflecting on Bill McKibben’s speech at the FISU Winter Games “Save Winter” conference in January.
“There’s no easy solution, but we have to make the big hard choices pretty much now,” she said.
In December, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation with a plan to preserve 30% of its lands and waters by 2030, though she did not mention how the bill will support the state’s climate goals.
Another wild ice skater, Dan Spada, has noticed a change in the ice. By February, Spada usually has around 200 miles of skating under his belt. This year he is trying to make up for 50 lost miles due to a lack of ice. Like birds and other animals, Spada suggested that wild ice skaters may have to migrate north.
“It’s frustrating and it’s maddening because we knew about this,” Spada said. “We’ve known about this climate change, climate disruption, global warming, we’ve known about it for decades and we’ve never bitten the bullet and done what needs to be done to avoid it.”
But that doesn’t stop skaters like Spada, Lee or Richter from doing what they love in the Adirondack region. The group has experience gauging ice thickness and safety using test poles. The state Department of Environmental Conservation recommends at least 4 inches for on-foot activities.
“You can get out on Lake Champlain and you got the blue sky overhead and it’s a mile to Vermont and a mile to New York, and you’re right on the border of the two states on smooth ice of the tailwind,” Spada said of wild ice skating.
“Your jaw muscles are sore from grinning all day,” he said.