Paul Andersen: Nature’s big, beautiful ice skating rink
My first step onto the natural lake ice is tentative as I launch off on a thin, stainless-steel blade. Will the ice support me? Will I go plummeting through into a hypothermic bath?
The ice holds. I push off, skimming across a medium of crystalline uniformity. My skates cut and carve as I flex my legs in rhythm to a beat in my head. Soon, I’m cruising, each blade stroke moving me forward with hardly an effort.
By the time I glide to a stop, I’m far from the shore of Ruedi Reservoir where the climatic conditions cursed by skiers — drought and intense cold — have brought on one of the most beautiful of winter scenes.
For weeks, Ruedi has been a magnet for skaters fixated on black ice. That’s the color natural ice takes, a dark, gray metallic hue that looks like steel. Hardened by subzero nights, black ice for skaters is the equivalent of deep powder for skiers, and there has been a frenzy at Ruedi these past weeks.
The surface of the reservoir is frozen an average of 6 inches thick. It is mostly smooth in a miles-long plate of ice floating on frigid lake water that’s not far beneath the sharp blades of my old Bauer hockey skates.
I peer into the ice through captive bubbles and see the water below as through a thick pane of glass. The ice is solid and unyielding, rigid yet fluid. It expands and contracts.
That’s what creates the sounds beneath me, the booms, rumbles and groans. The ice thunders as lightning-like fractures rip across the icy crust, indicators of the plasticity of what’s holding me up. There are fissures and ridge fractures where plate tectonics create rifts along fault lines. The ice is alive and dynamic.
Skating on a huge frozen lake is an act of faith. One is buoyed by the hope that you won’t mire into a soft spot made by currents or warm springs. There are ice fishing holes that look like warts on the otherwise smooth plates. You avoid those. There are other upwellings that look like the skin blemishes my dermatologist burns off, and you avoid those, too.
Invariably, you hit a nonconformity, stumble, regain your balance and go on. Falling on ice hurts, so some wear helmets and pads. But after learning where the good ice lies, you can ramp up speed and fly.
Ruedi is safe compared to lakes where hardcore skaters go for fresh, thin, virgin plates that can form overnight. Skating on a little over an inch of ice is possible, but cautionary, so hand picks, ropes and PFDs are standard equipment. Skating with others is a survival necessity.
My friend, Graeme, has skated with some of these radical aficionados. He recalls laying down on the ice and watching them skate toward him. In front of their skates, the flexing ice curves up in a smooth ripple, pushed along by the weight of the skaters.
Last week, there was a chill breeze blowing up Ruedi Reservoir. Skating against the wind felt like going up a long, slow hill. The downwind run was a beautiful experience of speed and stillness by moving at the same speed as the wind.
Decades ago, while I was a student at Western State in Gunnison, I used to venture out with friends onto Blue Mesa Reservoir for full moon night skating. The temp was 20 below, the air was still and sparkling with suspended ice crystals frozen in suspension and reflecting the silvery moon like diamond dust.
The ice was more than a foot thick, and it boomed loudly in the nocturnal stillness. Fracture lines made upheavals 3 feet high that we scrambled over to continue a long, arcing loop beneath a starry sky framed by low sage hills in that high desert landscape.
Ruedi is 20 minutes from my home, so I turn off my computer, pack up a folding chair, an extra jacket, warm gloves and join the throng of hockey players, figure skaters, families with kids and dogs, and the ever patient ice fishermen — all brought together by one of winter’s finest gifts.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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