Cross-country skaters search for the 'wild ice'

In Europe, long-distance skating thrives. Could it catch on in North America?

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    The big chill: On a Vermont lake, a woman tries her hand at the sport of Nordic skating.
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Alford Lake echoes with sound. The deep rumble of ice slowly shifting. Whirs from a two-cycle ice fishing auger. Steady, soft swishes from four men in helmets gliding gracefully across the ice as they harness the chilly southwesterly wind.

Unlike many skaters in North America who rely on indoor rinks and Zambonis, these ice athletes depend on the weather for placid "wild ice." Today is a good day for sailing, but when the winter gusts halt, making travel in homemade ice boats difficult, the men strap on Nordic ice skates – a cross-country ski boot fitted with what looks like the heel edge of a 17-inch chef's knife.

The Swedes call it "långfärdsskridskoåkning" and the popular northern European long-distance skating has, until recently, been a relatively obscure passion in North America. "I think for the next couple of generations, people will just be discovering it," says Jamie Hess, who runs a Nordic skate shop near the New Hampshire border in Norwich, Vt.

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Eight years ago, Mr. Hess built a groomed outdoor track, a trail open to anyone with the skates. It proved instrumental in introducing the sport to more athletes across the Northeast, where individuals had been partaking in the fringe winter sport alone or in small groups.

"We're making it a social activity," Hess says. "That's something that has existed for generations in Europe but didn't exist here." Now, a couple local clubs have sprung up to organize outings. Hess's virtual clubhouse has swelled in membership.

In Sweden, local government councils regularly clear long skating paths on the ice for long-distance skating. On sunny winter weekends, thousands of Swedes flock to the nation's small lakes and the number of skate club leaders alone reaches into the hundreds.

"It's kind of like hiking or skiing. It's so easy," says Mark Harris, a British expatriate who works as an engineer in Uppsala, Sweden's fourth-largest city. "You don't need to be fit like you do for skiing. With skiing, you need to be a bit more sporty."

No small feet

In North America, Nordic skating has caught on with middle-aged skaters and those who find their feet hurt in hockey, figure, or speed skates, Hess says.

Last year, northern Vermont officials considered a marketing campaign encouraging cross-country skating in order to spur winter tourism – and boost other wintry inland events off the slopes like ice fishing. There's been some hope that Lake Champlain – despite its bitter wind, cold, and snowfall – will become a sort of "West Coast" for New England.

For those who can't make it to frozen terrain in Sweden or Siberia, US tours go around Lake Champlain, Lake George, and up the Connecticut River. Ottawa, in Canada, boasts over 300 outdoor rinks and the famed Rideau Canal. Outside the capital city, another municipality, Portland, Ontario, has been promoting its circular outdoor rink on Big Rideau Lake. Other traditional ice boating areas – from the shores of the Hudson River and Red Bank, N.J., to Lake City, Minn. – also maintain clubs or hot lines that monitor ice conditions.

But the growth of the sport comes amid dwindling ice time. The US Geologic Survey conducted a study of 150 years of data from amateur pond watching and concluded the traditional ice-out dates – the big thaw – came nine days earlier in mountainous areas of New England and 16 days earlier in southern New England. "In Boston now," Hess says, "the season's measured in weeks."

Whiz kids

Still, more winter rain has been good for resurfacing lakes. In late February, members of Maine's informal Chickawaukee Iceboaters Club park their cars on the thick glassy surface of Alford Lake. In home-built iceboats, Jory Squibb and Bill Buchholz whiz around at speeds of up to 50 m.p.h.

Dicky Saltonstall parks his iceboat, the Icywood, and pulls out a pair of skates from the back of his van. He catches the wind and says, "You feel like you're a barn swallow out for a little sail."

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