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Blades of Glory

Nordic skating has crossed the chilly North Atlantic and set up shop in Vermont


Published October 3, 2007 at 3:19 p.m.

Near North Hero
  • Near North Hero

Winter outdoor enthusiasts, brace yourself for a bit of a downer: It doesn't snow in Vermont as much as it used to. VPIRG pegs the decrease at 15 percent since the 1950s, and temperatures have been on the rise. But even when the hills are like brown elephants in January, nearby lakes and rivers are usually frozen. Four words describe a sport that thrives on the simple equation of winter = ice: cross-country iceskating.

Also known as Nordic skating or tour skating, the activity is best differentiated from old-fashioned American pond skating by its equipment. Nordic skaters wear cross-country ski boots (skate-ski boots are best) that attach to skate-ski bindings mounted on a blade of hardened steel 15 to 19 inches long. There are two basic methods: "trail skating," which you do on a path plowed on the ice with an ATV, and "wild skating," which knows no bounds but ice thickness.

But where are you going to find all that frozen water? Vermont, it turns out, is one of the best places in the country to be a Nordic skater, since it's predictably cold and has large expanses of ice on Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River, not to mention lakes Willoughby, Memphremagog, Morey and Fairlee. And if some local tourism promoters have their way, Nordic skating could soon become to winter on "the West Coast of New England" what wind surfing is to the summer.

Like any fringe sport, Nordic skating in the U.S. has its guru. Jamie Hess wouldn't describe himself that way, but the fact is indisputable. The 53-year-old Norwich resident owns a shop there called The Nordic Skater. He's the main importer and distributor of Nordic skating equipment in North America, publishes an email ice report, and organizes tours and clinics. Hess has alert, enthusiastic eyes in a sun-creased face, attesting to all the time he spends outdoors as a biker, runner, skier and skater.

Sitting on a settee too formal for the occasion, in the living room of the Norwich Inn, Hess will happily talk Nordic skating for hours. He's full of facts and figures and trivia about the sport. "Centuries ago," he explains, "when people didn't have time for frivolous recreational activities, skating was a form of transportation and way to get out to your hunting grounds in the winter." Like skiing, he goes on, skating probably originated in northern Europe, where it was first accomplished by strapping sharpened cattle bones to prehistoric feet swaddled in animal-skin moccasins.

Northern Europe is where Nordic skating stayed for thousands of years. Today it's a competitive sport, like Nordic skiing or even a winterized sister of bike racing: Skaters travel upwards of 200 kilometers in a day, clad in Spandex bearing the sublimated graphics of sponsors. In terms of effort and speed, Nordic skating most closely resembles biking - athletes can move at 20 miles per hour, or even faster with the wind at their backs.

Hess discovered the sport for himself in Sweden in 1999. All it took was one dismal winter for the avid cross-country skier to realize there's always good ice, even when there's no snow. In fact, Nordic skaters prefer a minimum of snow - it means smooth gliding and no plowing. "In a way," Hess says, "the success of the sport around here has been made possible by global warming." Fifty years ago, it would have been almost impossible to keep the ice clear.

Linda Howes, 51, learned about Nordic skating through Hess two years ago, and she had similar reasons for giving it a try. "Our winters have been kind of iffy," she says. "We've been missing those really good snowfalls." A nutritionist who lives near Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire, Howes likes to keep active year-round, and she found Nordic skating was a "way of making friends with winter when there isn't any good snow."

Before trying the sport, Howes was a cross-country skier with bad memories of iceskating as a kid - her skates were uncomfortable, cold and unsupportive. That all changed with Nordic skating, she says. No longer must you sit on the shore of a cold, windswept lake and urge frozen fingers to tie laces. Since you can drive and walk in skate-ski boots, you can put them on in a warm place and click into the blades in a matter of seconds, without taking off your gloves. Howes and Hess both describe the boots as warm and supportive, enabling skaters to stay outside for hours in comfort.

That's all well and good, but what about safety? Skating on thin ice may be a cliché, but literally speaking, no one wants to take a swim in 32-degree water. Nordic skaters aren't keen on an impromptu dip, but some are more cavalier about it than others. Hence, the definition of a "safe" thickness of ice "depends," says Hess, "on if you're Swedish or American or something else." Swedes, he explains, will skate on ice an inch-and-a-half thick, carrying a backpack with a sealed compartment containing dry clothes. For them, falling through the ice is practically a sport in itself: "They brag about how many times they fell through," Hess relates.

In the U.S., thickness standards are a little tougher, but not much - about 2-and-a-half inches on lakes, and 3 to 4 inches on rivers. As a precautionary measure, skaters wear special ice picks - plastic handles with steel tips - that hang from a necklace and can be used to hoist oneself from the water. For even better protection, they often carry Nordic skating poles to test the ice thickness. The poles look like burly cross-country skiing poles with no baskets. The test is simple: Jam the carbide tip into the ice; if the pole goes through, skate somewhere else. The color of the ice is also a hint: Black ice has few air bubbles and is the safest; white or gray ice has lots of air bubbles and is more apt to soften on a warm day. Safety, however, is only a concern for "wild" skaters, since an area that's been plowed by an ATV can surely hold a couple of people.

Currently, only one body of water in Vermont has a regularly plowed path for Nordic skating: Lake Morey, in the Upper Connecticut River Valley just off I-91. Hess says the 2-mile-long path is a great place for beginners to learn the sport, since the conditions are predictable and other skaters are likely to be around. But Lake Champlain is set to be the next hub of Nordic skating activity, thanks to a combined effort of the Lake Champlain Islands Chamber of Commerce, Burlington nonprofit Local Motion, Hero's Welcome General Store and, of course, Jamie Hess.

Last year, the Chamber of Commerce got a "Creative Communities" grant from the Vermont Council on Rural Development, one goal of which was to develop business opportunities in the islands' off season. The grant committee brainstormed, says Ruth Wallman, director of the Chamber, and concluded that "what we have up here is ice, and lots of it."

All that thinking spawned a February event with a catchy name: Great Ice in Grand Isle. More than 300 people showed up at City Bay, in front of Hero's Welcome, where Brian Costello of Local Motion plowed a half-mile-long path. Hess brought up a vanload of demo equipment and turned the hibernating island into a bustling ice carnival.

Given the turnout at last season's event, all the players are excited to offer Nordic skating again this year. Wallman says the Chamber may organize a trek through the Alburgh Passage, while Costello, a long-time ice-boater and recent Nordic skating convert, is scheming up ways to make the perfect path with a custom-crafted outdoor Zamboni. His plan is still in the concept phase, but may involve "an extra-large, industrial-size snowblower" with a sweeper behind it.

Costello is also checking into ground-penetrating radar, which would allow the operator to determine the thickness of the ice more precisely - essential when maneuvering a giant snowblower over a fragile surface. Yet more ideas include making a second plowed path on Malletts Bay - protected from the wind, it's one of the first areas to freeze - and offering a shuttle service from Burlington to the islands when the conditions are good. "It's kind of a 'build-it-and-they-will-come' effort," Costello says optimistically.

Snowblowers and plowed paths will help encourage newcomers to the sport and the islands. But for most Nordic skaters, wild skating is where it's at. Linda Howes recalls a tour last year from the Basin Harbor to the Palisades and up the New York shoreline. "It was one of the most exhilarating days I've ever had on the ice," she says. "We saw a bald eagle, we saw a peregrine falcon; there were ice climbers on the Palisades; we saw fish through the ice . . . It was just stunning."