February 3, 2013

Skating another way to appreciate waterways


---- — My grandfather’s sister once told me a story about ice skating on Lake Champlain in 1931.

She was jumping a pressure crack and fell in. She froze her sleeves onto the ice until she could hoist herself back up.

She got out but she drummed into my head that no one should be on the ice without what she called “picks.” They were two cut-off wooden dowels with nails stuck in one end and a rope connecting them to each other.

Also referred to as ice claws, these are essential equipment for anyone who loves ice. Nordic Skater in Norwich, Vt., sells an industrial-strength style, but the old-fashioned style is still available from local shops that supply ice fishermen. Norm’s Bait and Tackle in Crown Point carries them. There are also very easy instructions online about how to make your own for free. If you love someone who loves ice, get him or her a pair of ice claws for Valentine’s Day.

Lake ice skating has created a new community of ice lovers. A group that began in Vermont and now has a number of followers from New York posts updates about where skaters can find good ice. Last weekend the Inland Sea had new ice that looked like glass.

Lake skating is a magical and addictive sport but it comes with obvious hazards. Being able to read the ice is what keeps you safe. Although most people feel safer on white ice, it is usually not as strong as clear ice, which forms during long, hard freezes.

Experienced skaters themselves are the best resource for what’s safe. I recently found the website and it is a must-read for fishermen, snowmobilers, hockey players, ice boaters and skaters. The site has great information about flotation, ice hazards, ice on ponds, pressure ridges and much more.

All over Sweden and the Netherlands there are organized groups of wild-ice skaters. They are acutely focused on safety and have passed their experience on to lake skaters on Lake Champlain. Skaters carry an array of safety equipment that includes at the minimum: claws, a throw bag or rope, flotation of some kind, a helmet and a buddy who can throw you the rope.

Although lake skaters like the newer Nordic skates, which are a hybrid of ice skates and cross-country skis, regular figure skates and hockey skates work just fine. Hero’s Welcome, a general store on North Hero Island, rents Nordic skates, boots and poles for anyone who feels inspired to try new gear.

Since 1971, the City of Ottawa has been hosting the next best thing to the lake in the way of outdoor skating. The Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is formed into what is known as the world’s largest skating rink. 

At 5 miles long and well monitored, it is typically more dependable than Lake Champlain or local ponds for good ice. In a normal year, the canal is open from early January until late February. Ice conditions are posted twice a day on the Skateway website (and also available by calling (613) 239-5234. Ice conditions change quickly so it’s important to check the updates.

Skating is another way to appreciate the waterways we live on, but various ice formations can be misleading. Use conservative judgment and take all safety precautions.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed guide who lives in Westport. She leads recreational and educational programs focused in the Champlain Valley throughout the year. Contact her at