Wild Skating Has Brought Joy to This Pandemic Winter

Many people have discovered how exhilarating it is to glide on a frozen lake.

frozen lake Huron
Skating on Lake Huron, February 2021.

K Martinko

If you were to ask me what the highlight of this winter has been, I'd say skating on Lake Huron. Several weeks ago the temperature dropped rapidly without wind or snow, creating an incredible natural rink in a bay near my house in southwestern Ontario. A friend told me about it, and I raced to see it for myself. Sure enough, the ice was smooth, clear, and easily skatable.

I spent two hours alone on that first afternoon, spinning and gliding and flying over the frozen water. The sun was shining, I finally had my skates on again, and it felt like the stresses of the past year floated away with every stride. The appearance of the ice beneath me changed every few feet. In some places it was completely clear, offering glimpses of the rippled sand at the bottom of the lake. A little further on it was jet-black, with no sign of the bottom, and then it contained large white geometrical shapes just below the surface that looked as if they should be bumpy but were just as smooth as the rest. 

early morning hockey on the lake
Early morning skate on the lake. K Martinko

This was not my first time "wild skating" though it was my first time doing it on Lake Huron – something a longtime local resident told me hasn't been possible in 30 years. I grew up next to a lake in Muskoka, a region of Ontario where the lakes are smaller and more protected than Huron, and it gets much colder in the winter (it's not uncommon for nights to hit -40 F in January). Once a year or so, "my" lake would freeze clear of snow and we'd skate the entire thing, spending a day (or several) zipping the mile from end to end. If it was sunny my parents would haul out a picnic table and we'd eat our meals on the ice, spending the entire day out there. And then we'd go back at night to skate under the stars.

Wild skating has apparently surged in popularity this year, since arenas and public rinks are closed across cold regions of the United States and Canada. With little else to do and nowhere else to go, many people have sought out wild skating spots to get fresh air and exercise, and to practice one of the most beloved activities that makes long, dark winters endurable – and even fun.

An article in the March issue of Maclean's reveals a series of stunning photographs by Paul Zizka, a 41-year-old resident of Banff, Alberta, who spends a few months every winter in search of perfect wild skating spots. Maclean's writes that Zizka "has seen the number of skaters on local lakes increase fivefold this season. He’s not surprised. It only takes a few strides to forget about the clutter of daily life and feel like a kid again." 

He mentions the unusual sound of wild skating – a resonance entirely unlike what you hear on a groomed rink. "The sound of skates carving into natural ice fluctuates and reverberates across the landscape depending on the thickness of the ice. 'The soundtrack will stop us in our tracks, just as much as the visual beauty will,' says Zizka." On Lake Huron, I noticed how loud it was, from the groaning of the ice to the crackle of blades cutting the surface to the hum of a particularly hard section.

Ben Prime, owner of the Nordic Skater shop in Newbury, New Hampshire, told National Geographic that wild skaters carry special gear that includes "sharp-tipped poles for balance and extra power, and a throw bag, which holds a rope that can be tossed to a skater who has plunged through the ice," as well as ice claws, which are "handheld spikes used to climb out of the water." My dad always told me never to go alone, to test ice with a hatchet first, and to take a long stick (a hockey stick!) that can reach another person, span a distance between edges to help you climb out, or break ice to reach a safer thickness. 

As for what that safe thickness may be, there are differing opinions. The old-timers in Muskoka used to talk about taking teams of horses onto the ice at just 3 inches thick, but Macleans cites the Canadian Red Cross saying you should wait till it's closer to 6 inches. The Old Farmer's Almanac says 3 inches is adequate for a single person, while 4 inches is preferable for a group in single file; 7.5 inches can hold a passenger car. Keep in mind that you should avoid ice with cracks or near inlets and running water.

skating on Lake Huron in the evening
Skating on Lake Huron in the evening. K Martinko

Much of what appeals about wild skating is how it only happens with the perfect confluence of factors. You have to find it first, which is like a rare treasure hunt, or it has to come to you, as Lake Huron did for me. When you find it, you have limited time to enjoy it, so there's a sense of urgency to squeeze every possible minute or hour out of the experience. You never know when it'll come back, and there's nothing you can ever do to make it happen.

That's why, the day after discovering the Lake Huron skating spot, I woke my family up early and packed them into the car for an early-morning skate. There was snow coming the next day, so we had to squeeze it in while we could. This time we were the only ones out there; we skated as the sun came up, and kept skating until it was time to take them to school. 

View Article Sources
  1. "Ice Thickness Safety Chart." Old Farmer's Almanac, 2021.