Ever since I first read “Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates,” I dreamed of taking off across a natural body of frozen water. Every winter of the last half century I’ve sought out that elusive miracle of nature: good ice. Lake or pond ice or a frozen river. The real thing. Last winter, I found it.
Lake Morey — on whose shores Vermont’s Lake Morey Resort has sat since 1905 — offers what is said to be the longest outdoor skating track (4-1/2 miles) in the United States. The resort is neither exotic or luxurious, and certainly not hip. But here, I could skate from one end of the lake clear to the other — an experience about as far removed from skating at a rink as attending a spin class is from biking the Tour de France.
My life as a skater
In my life as a not particularly distinguished skater I’ve spent plenty of time on rink ice — going around in circles while the music plays, trying my best to avoid both shaky first-time skaters and hotshots. The town where I grew up in southern New Hampshire featured an indoor rink, and for a lot of people there, the Snively Arena was the place to go on a Saturday afternoon in winter. But for me, the idea of propelling myself around the perimeter of a small, crowded indoor space to a soundtrack of tinny music never held much appeal.
The place I headed every winter morning I had the opportunity, from the age of 7 or 8, was known as the mill pond, on the outskirts of town, with a simple wooden bench along one side where I laced up my skates in preparation for the great moment. Even now, so many decades later, that moment has lost none of its appeal: You step onto the ice — a little gingerly at first, if it’s been a while. The blades of your skates glide out over the surface, and your body follows, as if all the usual rules of gravity have been suspended. Never mind weak ankles or frostbitten toes, or the prospect of falling flat on your face.
The trade-off for skaters, between rink and pond ice, is obvious. The most beautiful natural places seldom offer the perfect, groomed conditions provided by a Zamboni. The ice is likely to be uneven, rough in patches, even buckled. Let’s not forget the element of danger: Skating on thin ice is never a good idea, even metaphorically, but taken back to its literal meaning should be avoided at all costs. Nearly every winter, growing up in New England, we’d hear the story of some foolhardy child — or, now and then, an overzealous ice fisherman — who ventured out onto a patch of ice that looked frozen solid but wasn’t. For this reason most children I knew who skated on the mill pond were not allowed on the ice until after New Year’s, although even then, a freak thaw could render the place unsafe for skating.
Then might come the cruelest part. Finally, the ice was safe. Maybe, if the stars were aligned and conditions had been perfect, the ice might even be gloriously smooth. But just when the weekend arrived, so did a blizzard, and because this was pond ice, or lake ice, with no helpful crew of ice-tenders ready to clear a swath with their equipment, skating season might be over, possibly before it ever got underway.
Hanging up my skates (for now)
In my early 40s, I moved with my children to the San Francisco Bay Area — a place untouched by below-freezing temperatures. I loved so much of life in California, but I had to hang up my skates. And for the next 20 years or so, my skating experiences were restricted to occasional visits, on trips to New York City, to Wollman Rink. I tried Radio City too, and Bryant Park. But their rinks were always so crowded.
Five years ago, I was back in New England with my second husband, Jim, on the hardest kind of mission. We had flown the 3,000 miles to Boston in search of a surgeon willing to operate on Jim, in the hopes of successfully removing a tumor in his pancreas.
The weekend of our Boston trip, a small, good thing happened, in the midst of great sorrow: Word came to me from a friend back in my old hometown, not far away, that a deep chill had left the ice in perfectly glassy shape for skating. With no medical appointments until midafternoon, I hotfooted it back to New Hampshire, borrowed a pair of skates, and set out on the ice of my old mill pond. And because the Lamprey River that connects to that pond was also frozen, I skated a mile down that river, too, with a Joni Mitchell song playing in my head. “I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” That day I did.
Amid loss, joy
The year after Jim died, I moved back to the East Coast. And in the face of vast loss, a small joy returned: skating. I sharpened the blades of my old skates. Renewed my quest for ice. I knew about the canals in Ottawa, of course (also Toronto). But I kept hoping to find something closer to home.
This is when I discovered the Lake Morey Resort.
Situated in the town of Fairlee, Vt., just over the New Hampshire border near Dartmouth College and Hanover, Lake Morey covers 545 acres. Plenty of other lakes exist in the vicinity, of course. What distinguishes this one is that the town has taken it upon itself to keep the perimeter plowed. Four and a half miles’ worth of open skating trail.
A person doesn’t actually have to stay at the Lake Morey Resort to skate on the lake, by the way, and plenty of locals evidently do so on a regular basis. The thing about booking a weekend at the resort — as I did, for my daughter, Audrey, and her boyfriend, Tod, and me — is that you get to walk straight from your room out onto the ice. After a long skate, you can go into the lodge and warm up.
When you’re skating a 4-1/2-mile long trail, you don’t need to worry about crowds. Nobody’s coming along behind you or hot-dogging alongside. No background music, and none is needed. You might hear the wind whistling through the trees. Nothing more.
I skated the loop three times that weekend. Audrey and Tod went twice as far on their fast skates. By the time we finished, the sun was going down, and the hockey players had called it a day. Only a handful of skaters remained on the ice by then, although a father and daughter remained on one of the patches of ice cleared for hockey, practicing their puck handling as the last light of day disappeared with a final flash of pink behind the mountains.
Later that evening, on the drive back to the resort after dinner in town, I noted that the moon had risen — a nearly full moon that seemed to hang directly over the frozen lake. Audrey and Tod opted for a little Ping-Pong before bed, but I knew where I was headed: back onto the ice — empty of all skaters now; I had the whole lake to myself. I set out one more time, humming my theme song under the stars.
All my life I had wished I had a river I could skate away on. That night, I discovered, a lake would do.