Only once in all the years I lived in Maine and northern New England was there a perfect skating winter. The long lakes left by the glaciers freeze every year. The ice is fine for snowmobiles and ice fisherman and guys eager, after a 6-pack or two, to practice their stunt driver moves. But not for skaters. By the time the ice is thick enough the snows have come and the wind has made a patchwork of drifts and clear patches. Warmer days have left slush to freeze again into jagged ridges and valleys. Skating over that slop rattles your teeth and bones. Nothing graceful about navigating that terrain. Tooth jarring at best and flailing for balance the rest of the time.
That winter I lived in Southwest Harbor out on Mt. Desert Island and worked as a stern-man for Dickie abroad the Deborah Jayne, fishing offshore for lobsters. We only went out once a week if the weather was right and he’d call before 3 in the morning to let me know. The rest of the time was as open and empty as the holiday towns on the island.
It was clear and dry and cold well into January and not a flake of snow on the ground. The lakes froze clear and hard and smooth, right end to end. Long Lake was just a short drive out of town. My old truck wasn’t good for much besides driving to the wharf and back. Back then, the western side of Mt. Desert Island was basically a nation unto itself. A backside wagon didn’t need to bother with legal or official technicalities. Besides I was driving at 3 in the morning and home again in the dark so slim chance of being busted. But the lure of clear black ice on the lakes made the drive to Ike’s Landing there on Long Lake too much to resist. I left in the late afternoons figuring with dusk falling and enough strategically placed mud I could slip past any paroling deputies.
That day, I was the only vehicle in the little gravel lot so I parked right at the edge of the ice and changed into my old, beat-up, Bauer hockey skates and took off. Long Lake lies between long, rugged granite ridges. It isn’t named Long Lake for nothing and with several miles of open ice and the ridges funneling the air on either side, the wind blows clear from end to end.
I flew. Suspended on the layer of ice with the dark water below me and the sky trending towards sunset above me, I flew down the very center of the lake with the wind at my back.
I was about halfway down the lake when it happened.
I looked down.
And holy shit the ice was thin.
I saw the water flowing beneath me, watched small twigs twist and turn.
Saw a pointed maple leaf still bright red and yellow press up against the ice from below.
Heard the ring of my blades against the ice echo from the sheer and brooding cliffs above.
And just like that I was past it and the ice was dark and opaque and I could measure its comforting thickness.
It was well past dark by the time I got back to the truck. Skating home against the wind was slow going but I didn’t mind. The night was clear, the ice was smooth, the stars bright, and I kept as close to the shore as I could without having to dodge around the rocks that poked through.
A couple of days later it snowed, then turned to rain, then froze hard again. The lakes were a mess of ridges and holes and dips and just like that the skating season was over.
I tell this story to the kids often. I let them think of it, the night, the ice, the truck alone in the parking lot, the long dark water of the lake alive beneath me.
I can see them shiver and look down as if they almost expect the ground to open beneath them.
I don’t tell them about the strange weightless feeling or how I still wonder who held me up that night.