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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Skate: When conditions are right, take advantage

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 12/9/20

After 35 years of living in the North Country, I’ve come to the conclusion that when it comes to spending time outdoors in winter, it pays to follow the iconic motto of the Boy Scouts: Be …

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Skate: When conditions are right, take advantage

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After 35 years of living in the North Country, I’ve come to the conclusion that when it comes to spending time outdoors in winter, it pays to follow the iconic motto of the Boy Scouts: Be Prepared.
For me, that means having just the right equipment on hand to enjoy whatever conditions Mother Nature throws our way. This year, thanks to weeks of little or no precipitation, some lakes in the area are in prime condition for skating, and I’m ready.
A few years ago, I bought a pair of 20-inch blades that attach to my cross-country ski boots, and they’re a blast. They’re called Nordic skates and they use the same type of binding as Nordic skis, which is affixed to the top of the blade. You attach them to your boots and off you go, with a motion that’s identical to skate skiing. In fact, most Nordic skaters use their ski poles to help propel themselves across the ice. Not surprisingly, you can go really fast, so fast, in fact, that I’ve taken to wearing a crash helmet.
For use on lakes, Nordic skates have traditional skates beat hands-down. Lake ice rarely has that Zamboni-like quality we associate with a hockey rink, yet the long Nordic blades allow you to glide right over ice imperfections that might otherwise leave your teeth rattling. That allows you to skate even when the ice conditions are far from ideal, such as in the early spring, when the snow finally melts off the lake ice, but rarely leaves a smooth surface in its wake.
For me, the other big appeal is comfort. From the time I was a little kid, I always associated skating with two things— pain and frozen toes, which eventually led to more pain when the toes started to thaw. I knew kids whose fathers shelled out big money for new, custom-fitted skates. I had to make do with the cheapest used skates they sold at the local rec store, skates that hurt from the moment you put them on.
My skate ski boots, by contrast, are exceedingly comfortable and warm. Attach a set of blades to the bottom and I have the most comfortable skates I’ve ever owned.
The biggest draw, of course, is setting yourself free on a giant sheet of ice, the clearer the better. I still remember an epic skate on Lake Vermilion, probably 15 years ago now. It was a December reminiscent of this year, with about five inches of ice stretching from McKinley Park out to Big Bay. It was clear, black ice, with no snow and the temperature was a few degrees above freezing. We had just had a couple tenths of an inch of rain, which sat, unfrozen, on top of the ice, and even made little ripples when the wind blew. Looking down, with the water on top, you couldn’t even tell there was ice below. It was as close as you could get to walking (or in this case, skating) on water. With a couple friends, we skated for miles.
We haven’t enjoyed those conditions so far this winter, but I’ve been skating almost daily now for about three weeks. Lost Lake is my regular go-to right now, since it’s just down the road. As of Monday, Lost Lake had about eight inches of good clear ice, which is thick enough to support a car, so there are no worries about falling through.
But I know others are skating elsewhere and the quest for new ice is always there, at least for me. The lure of Boundary Waters ice is particularly strong with skating enthusiasts up here. Being able to skate an entire chain of lakes is so enticing, it’s hard to resist. Such conditions are exceedingly rare, of course. The ice has to form when it’s calm and you have to avoid any significant snowfall. Even a couple inches of snow can ruin the skating. Our dry late November and early December has set us up for good skating on shallower lakes that are already frozen. But we still haven’t had the sub-zero temperatures necessary to put some real ice on the deeper lakes. Burntside is a fantastic skate when it has clear black ice, and some folks have been taking advantage of adequate ice along the shore. Just avoid the deeper portions of the lake, at least for now.
It’s the rarity of good skating conditions that creates that desire to take advantage when the conditions arrive. Most years, the skating blades sit in the closet. Decent skating conditions arrive maybe once every three years. Truly epic skating conditions maybe once in eight years. When they arrive, those of us who skate make the time to get out there. We also make sure to be prepared.

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