Chasing Wild Ice on Nordic Skates
By Evan Johnson
Photos by Herb Swanson
When the temperatures drop toward freezing, Bob Dill of Burlington begins looking forward to getting back out on the ice again. A Nordic skater, Dill welcomes the extreme cold, which creates ideal long-distance skating conditions.
“You really have to go out and look,” he says. “Or else you risk missing what could have been a really great day.”
No stranger to ice, Dill also enjoys ice fishing, skating in hockey skates, and ice sailing. But Nordic skating allows him to skate farther, away from the crowds. He has been using Nordic skates for about 15 years and skates with a group of friends for distances of up to 20 miles in a day, traveling from Shelburne Pond to points as far south as the Lake Champlain Bridge at Chimney Point. The conditions in January and February are usually favorable—thick ice with little snow cover. Even with good conditions, Dill and others remain wary of hazards. When he’s out skating, Dill carries ice claws and a throw rope and wears a dry suit, helmet, joint-protecting pads, and a life jacket.
“I go out by myself more often than I should, so I make sure I take that extra precaution,” he says. “The water is freezing this time of year. It’s terrifying if you fall through.”
Jamie Hess, 59, of Norwich, discovered Nordic skating in 1999 while on a trip to Sweden. Today, his entire family Nordic skates, and he has since helped establish nordicskater.com, an online retail and organizational site for ice reports, tips, and safety for Vermont and New Hampshire. Most of the local interest in the sport revolves around recreation, though nordicskater.com has held races.
“The races had a positive turn out,” says Hess. “But people seem more interested in recreational skating.”
Ideal conditions and technique
Large bodies of water such as Lake Champlain, Lake Morey in Fairlee (which features a four-mile tour), and Lake Memphremagog in Newport are all popular centers for wintertime skating. The ice may be good, but clear ice is best, so skaters use snowblowers, shovels, and brooms to remove snow for a suitable skating surface. Though the ice doesn’t have to be perfectly clear to be skateable. The specially designed skates handle imperfections in the ice surface much easier than any other variety of skate. Nordic skates have longer blades than conventional figure or hockey skates and attach to the bottom of a cross-country ski boot like any pair of cross-country skis. The blades curve up at the tip, allowing the skater to cruise through less than ideal ice with confidence.
Hess says the technique is similar to cross-country skate skiing, but Nordic skating is faster.
“It’s much more efficient,” says Hess. “The comparison between Nordic skating and skate skiing is like road biking versus mountain biking. They’re the same technique, except when you road bike, you go at least twice as fast for the same amount of effort.”
How To Go
Freezing temperatures guarantee quality ice on many of Vermont’s ponds and lakes, including some of the largest open bodies of water like Lake Champlain and Lake Memphremagog. This winter, Kingdom Games is heading an effort to keep The Memphremagog Nordic Skating Trail on the US side of the border open. The trail starts at The East Side Restaurant, heads to Prouty Beach in Newport Bay, then out around The Bluffs into Derby Bay before turning north toward Province Island. Maps of trails are available at trailfinder.com. During this month, The Great Outdoors will be offering rentals of Nordic skates provided by Jamie Hess of nordicskater.com.
The Lake Morey Ice Skating Trail is 4.5 miles long and is located just off Interstate 91 in Fairlee. When conditions permit it’s full operation, the trail is the longest ice trail in the United States. The trail is open to the public and can be accessed via Lake Morey Resort’s lakefront. Parking is available at the resort as well as at the state boat launch.
Current ice trail conditions can be found at lakemoreyresort.com/activities-iceskating