By Mike Lynch
Dan Spada got into Nordic skating about 15 years ago while visiting Ottawa with his family during the city’s winter festival. On that trip he saw someone ice skating on the Rideau Canal using blades he didn’t recognize.
So Spada approached the man and found out they were Nordic blades, which are longer than blades for hockey and figure skates and can be attached to Nordic skiing boots. At the time, they were common in Europe but Spada had never seen them before.
Soon after that, Spada looked them up on the internet and ordered a pair from Sweden. “I think I was probably the first person around here who had those skates,” said Spada, a retired supervisor in the natural resources department at the state Adirondack Park Agency.
Since then Spada, who lives in Tupper Lake, has found people from both Vermont and the Adirondack region who enjoy Nordic skating. One of the benefits of the Nordic skates—blades that attached to Nordic ski boots—is they can slide over all kinds of ice, even if the surface is crusty. And if used properly, they are ideal for skating long distances. You can travel 12 to 15 mph if the conditions are right, he said. Plus, they can be detached quickly for portaging around bad ice.
Ice skating in the Adirondacks is a common activity. Hundreds of skaters seem to visit Lake Placid every weekend to play hockey, whether it’s in a tournament at the Olympic Center or a game on Mirror Lake. The Cascade lakes draw their share of recreational skaters, and community rinks throughout the region fill up with families regularly.
But what Spada and his friends do is a different niche. It’s wild ice skating. He and his friends are drawn to skating on ponds, lakes and occasionally rivers and streams. Sometimes they frequent places like the Cascade lakes or Lower Saranac, but other times they head out to places where they are all alone, like on stretches of Lake Champlain.
A long skate for Spada is traveling 40 miles on Lake Champlain from Whitehall to Port Henry, a trip he has done a handful of times in a matter of four or five hours. One of the people he has done the trip with is Kevin Boyle, a self-employed woodworker who lives in Moriah. “It’s so exciting I often can’t sleep the night after a big skate,” Boyle said.
Boyle, Spada and their friends are drawn by the desire to explore new places but also the search for natural beauty—visual and auditory.
“The light in the winter is just spectacular on the ice,” Boyle said. “If you can catch a day when there are bluebird skies and it’s cold, it really is stunning. If the day goes long and you can catch a sunset from the ice, the colors are just amazing.”
Elizabeth Lee, a naturalist and guide from Westport, said she is drawn to skating by the peacefulness and wild nature of the experience. She loves seeing the patterns in the ice, or animal tracks, or gliding over it when it is clear and black. In rare instances, you can see through to the bottom.
“Sometimes you see incredible stuff in the ice, fish frozen into the ice,” she said. “It’s a wild kingdom out there, you can see where coyotes took down a deer, or sometimes the remains of mortal combat between birds.”
One of the appealing parts of skating on newly formed black ice is that it makes a sci-fi laser sound as the skater glides over it. Ice skaters pay attention to the sound not only for its beauty but for practical reasons.
The sound the ice makes is an indication of the ice’s thickness. If a skater’s blades are making a low pitch, the ice is pretty thick, Spada said. If the pitch is high that’s an indicator of thinner ice.
If Spada is in a group of skaters and they are moving along the ice and one of them hears a rising pitch, he said, the skater will yell, “Pitch up.” In response, the skaters spread out, and they will do an ice thickness test to ensure it is safe. The test is done pounding the sturdy but pointed pole into the ice to determine the ice’s strength and thickness.
“A lot of times, when that pitch changes, that’s the first indication that the ice thickness has changed,” Spada said.
Personal safety is something Spada and his friends take very seriously. They will skate on ice as thin as 2 inches, but they do a lot of planning and preparation to ensure they will have a safe experience. If the ice isn’t deemed safe, they simply leave.
Some members of the group, like Spada, wear dry suits during early and late season trips, or if there are other conditions that may require being extra cautious. Others skaters wear wet suits. Those who don’t have a suit bring a full change of clothes.
Spada has fallen through the ice twice. Once with a dry suit and once without it. With a dry suit on, he said the situation was resolved quickly and he was able to continue skating without much inconvenience. However, the experience of falling through in his clothes was much more serious, and he was reliant on his fellow skaters for getting into dry clothes and getting warm again. That’s one of the reasons he said it’s important to skate in a group and to have the proper gear.
Key pieces of gear he brings include ice poles for gauging the strength and thickness of the ice, ice picks for clinging to the edge after falling through, a throw rope, a helmet, and a flotation device. Knee and elbow pads can help absorb falls. Then there are essential items, such as a first-aid kit, which any backcountry user should have on trips.
Spada and his friends also watch educational videos about surviving falls through ice, hypothermia and other relevant topics. Many feature Canadian scientist Gordon Giesbrecht, who has studied hypothermia extensively and done some real-life testing in cold conditions on himself.
“We don’t have a cavalier attitude about it but we’re not afraid of it either,” Spada said about falling through the ice. “We understand that if you’re going to do this you accept some level of risk.”
The key is reducing the risk to an acceptable level, he said.
“We’re careful,” Boyle said. “Me especially, I don’t like the liability of having weaker skaters along, people who aren’t prepared, that don’t have enough of the right gear.”
Having the right gear and knowledge of ice has allowed them to skate when others would not. Spada, Boyle, Lee and a group of friends went skating on some ponds in Essex County in November. Spada said it was the second year in a row he skated on Nov. 15. Prior to last year, he never went earlier than mid-December.
That’s the thing about skating. “The conditions are ephemeral,” Spada said.
When the good ice appears, Boyle said, he won’t stay in his workshop. “I turn the shingle over to ‘Gone skating,’ and I’m out of there.
“It doesn’t matter what deadlines I have. I just go.”