The last day: An early morning on a smooth frozen lake
BY MITCH MODE
Special to the Star Journal
It froze hard overnight. Morning sky was bright with stars; east horizon turning pale, a springtime sky. But the air was cold, a late wintertime chill.
The day prior had been mild; evening brought drizzle. Bare ground took the rain and turned to mud. On the lakes the top surface was wet and smooth; water a leveler no matter where it flows. Backyard puddles were as if jagged-edged mirrors. Lake ice held the water and in late afternoon light shone bright as polished silver. All level, all smooth.
Then the temperature dropped and it froze up hard. In the darkness before dawning the backyard puddles were iced and the lakes were smooth and dark. In the woodlots the maple trees stood tall and alert in the dawning. There was frost on windshields and yards. It was very calm as if the day, as if the season itself, was poised and about to change.
“We skated down the length of the lake and the rhythm took over and there was nothing but the wind in our faces and the feeling that comes when doing a simple task well.”
I got a text at the time the eastern sky was smudged with light: “This could be the last day!”
It was not, as it may have appeared, a forewarning of apocalypse or end of days. It was, instead, an observation: The lake ice was smooth and hard and it could be the last day of the season to blade.
I did a quick calculation. Predawn now; have to be to work by 8 a.m. Maybe, just maybe, if I get off my butt and move I can get in half an hour, forty-five minutes. I thought about it. Then I texted back: “Be there in 15 minutes.”
It is, technically, not ice skating. One does not use ice skates as such. We use ice blades which are not the same. Think of a skate blade, many 18” long, just the metal blade; thin and by itself nothing exceptional. Put that blade on edge, long side down. On top, is a flat deck so the blade and deck make a T shape when viewed from the end. On that deck one screws a binding designed for cross country skis. So, blade, deck, binding; an ice blade.
With that setup one can use cross country ski boots, clip them into the binding and be ready to go. The end result is essentially a speed skate but less expensive if one owns ski boots.
It is rare that conditions are right for blading. Early season in a bad snow year is best. The lake ice is thick enough for safety and there is no snow to hinder glide. A season like that comes along infrequently with that combination; good, clean ice, thick enough to support one and clear of snow.
Early season is best.
But late season can be exceptional.
We’ve been winding down the winter of late. Snow is long gone, ice remains. Sunny days or days of rain flood the lake surface. A good, hard freeze firms up the top layer; snow melt and rain water in the afternoon become hard ice come dawn.
I drove in haste and parked the truck, met my friend. The two of us walked down to the lake, clipped into the bindings, took a few tentative skate steps. The lake was gray and any traces of snow gone with the warm afternoon and rains of the day before. The blades glided smooth and easy.
We began to skate, the long blades clacking on the hard ice. The ice was the dead color of ice that will not last long in the warmth of spring. There were striations in the ice, deep fractures that spoke of a restlessness, of shifting and moving and uneasiness as the winter ice battled with the springtime sun. We skated across them; they were not open, not this morning.
A small circle in the ice ahead; ice fishing hole, augured through the ice. I stopped, reached my hand down to the bottom where ice gave way to water; twelve, maybe fifteen inches thick. The ice was clear and pure below the lead gray surface. We went on.
In all things physical there comes a rhythm when done well, a synchronized motion as arms and legs work together and at such time effort seems reduced and pure movement is all that exists. We skated down the length of the lake and the rhythm took over and there was nothing but the wind in our faces and the feeling that comes when doing a simple task well.
It is a small lake, 250 acres or so, and with the fast ice we went from one end to the other in a short time. To the east the sun was breaking the tree line; it would be a beautiful day. We looped at the end of the lake, bladed back to where we’d started, then repeated the down and back.
It is easy to think that such times will go on forever, that the ice will be perfect and the temperatures on the rise and the sun breaking into a clear sky. It is easy to think a perfect morning will not repeat tomorrow. That is not true; all things end.
Sometimes the best we can hope for is to take satisfaction in simply physical acts, skiing or riding or paddling or skating. In those often mindless tasks one can put the burden of the day to come or the day just past, put them to rest, out of one’s mind.
We bladed that morning with the clear mindedness that comes at times as this.
A sharp, loud cracking noise, the sound of ice fracturing, not breaking apart yet but starting that process. A week ago was the rumble of making ice; now the whip-like crack of decay.
It was time to quit.
We walked from the lake into the new day and the rising warmth. In the woods the tall maple trees pulsed as if waking from winter slumber. In the afternoon the sap buckets would be full. By night sweet syrup off the boiler. Ice blade season was over.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.