Sunshine, fresh air, and the chance to skim along scenic straightaways draw skating enthusiasts to the Lake Morey trail, the longest of its kind in the country.Photo Credit : Mark Fleming
It took me just five minutes on the ice at Lake Morey, a two-mile jewel set in a ring of Vermont hills near the New Hampshire border, to realize I’d been using the wrong skates all my life. I flew across the black surface of the lake, shuttered summer camps whipping past onshore, and felt a childlike giddiness bubbling up. I’d rented a pair of Nordic skates from the skate shack at Lake Morey Resort, and right from the start I could feel that this was the fairy tale I’d always chased unsuccessfully in my old hockey skates.
Nordic skates, which are still uncommon in the United States, are long, rugged blades designed for distance over less-than-perfect ice. The blades are topped with cross-country ski bindings that snap right into regular cross-country boots, and their curved tips and wide cut allow them to navigate bumps and cracks without catching a tip. A national obsession in Sweden, they’re finally catching on over here.
My first 90 seconds were shaky, I admit. I sat on a wooden bench on the resort’s shoreline and attached my blades, then threaded wobbly-legged through a forest of pleasure skaters and pickup hockey games, my arms out for balance. It was weird to look down and see little spears protruding from my boots, Bond villain–style, and weirder still to kick and feel my free heel lifting away from the blade, as if I were wearing tiny cross-country skis.
“Longer strokes,” advised Lisa Avery, the resort’s co-owner, following behind on a kick sled. “This isn’t hockey.” The Averys, who have owned Lake Morey Resort for three generations, have made this place into New England’s skating mecca. People come for the pond hockey tournament, which draws about 100 teams from all over New England, and especially for the Nordic skating. The resort is one of the few places that rent Nordic skates, and the 4½-mile groomed trail, which it has maintained since 2006, is the longest in the country.
When I first visited, Mother Nature’s Zamboni had just swept through, showering the lake with a January rainstorm that froze into black glass from end to end, so I didn’t even need the trail. As soon as I cleared the scrum of people and settled into a rhythm of long, slow kicks, channeling my inner Olympic speed skater, the revelations began.
One, I was going somewhere. The shoreline whistled past, a bracing wind in my face. An ice fisherman dipped his head. Tree-lined coves beckoned in the distance. I was freed from the tyranny of the rink. No more round and round. No teenyboppers. No disco!
Two, my feet were incredibly comfortable. Why had I been pinching my toes into hard, cold skates all my life? My boots were cozy and warm. And no more changing into frozen skates on the rink: You just walk down to the ice and snap on your blades. Parents of small children, rejoice.
Three, good God was I going fast. The wider blades glide on top of the ice instead of digging a channel as figure skates do, so you get twice the glide per kick. On a large lake, you don’t realize how much speed you’ve built up … until you try to turn. If hockey skates are the sports cars of the ice, Nordic skates are the SUVs. They’ll barrel over all sorts of debris, but they don’t cut. If I veered too sharply, I suddenly found myself fishtailing like a stunt driver. I wiped out a few times, yet even that was fun: skittering over the ice like a puck, not really caring how long it took to stop.
I reached the far end of the lake—two miles in just a few minutes—and turned and looked back. Dozens of figures in bright clothing were darting across the surface like reef fish. The pale winter sun hung low over the spruce-capped hills, bouncing off the ice. Satisfied that I wasn’t going to kill myself, Avery detoured on her kick sled to catch up with some ice fishermen. An eagle watched from a bare tree, hoping for scraps.
I zipped back across the lake, concentrating on long, powerful kicks, chasing the sun’s reflection. There was white ice, milky ice, and crystal-clear “black ice” with thousands of bubbles frozen in time, all of it streaming like a film reel beneath my feet. I sashayed through a field of wooden tip-ups, hugged the shore for a peek at some intriguing summer camps, and cruised over a two-inch chasm that would have laid out a figure skater. Crows shadowed me. The ice groaned. I felt as though I were flying through a winter-scape. I felt like a Norse god.
Nordic skating has its roots in the centuries-old Scandinavian tradition of strapping bone blades to your boots to cross the ice while hunting and fishing. Eventually steel blades replaced the bone, and then somebody had the bright idea to bond the blades to ski bindings, and a real sport was born. In Sweden, thousands of people traverse the frozen lakes every winter and compete in the Vikingarännet, a 50-mile race from Uppsala to Stockholm. The Dutch used to host a 200-kilometer race (roughly 125 miles) along their network of canals, but it’s been 20 years since they had enough ice to hold it.
Until New Hampshire’s Jamie Hess fell in love with Nordic skating—or “wild skating,” as he calls it—in Sweden in 1999, it was unknown in the United States, for reasons my feet and I cannot fathom. Hess began importing the equipment and spreading the gospel through races, guided tours, and unrelenting enthusiasm. The Norwich shop he founded, Nordic Skater, became the North American center of the sport (now located in Newbury, New Hampshire, it’s still going strong under the ownership of his son-in-law, Ben Prime). Hess leads tours on Lake Sunapee, Lake Champlain, and Lake Memphremagog, and last year he returned to Sweden for the first time in 18 years.
After two hours on Lake Morey, I was already fantasizing about doing my first. I could have kept going, but the sun was down and the skate shack was closing. I could just make out the last skaters gliding toward the inn. I got halfway back, then thought better of it and turned again, heading out for one more run as the world bent toward infinity, the sky gray, the shore fading, the only sound the shick, shick of my blades on the black lake.
TO GET STARTED
Lake Morey Resort: The skate shack is open weekends January through March, ice permitting. Nordic skate rentals $30. The skating trail is always free to use. 1 Clubhouse Road, Fairlee, VT. 800-423-1211; lakemoreyresort.com
Nordic Skater: Full selection of Nordic skates, skating boots, and safety gear. See website for showroom hours; appointments recommended. 4 Rte. 103A, Newbury, NH. 603-763-2727; nordicskaters.com