An ice skating phenomenon

ice skaters

The skaters skim over the frozen river.

And the grinding click of their skates as they impinge upon the surface,

Is like the brushing together of thin wing-tips of silver.

— From “The Skaters” by John Gould Fletcher

Having lived near Lake of the Isles for over 30 years, I can tell you that never have there been so many people out skating as there were in January.

But then, I don’t recall a time when the entire lake, in fact all the city lakes, were so accessible for so many days running. And so smooth — mostly!

The warming house on Isles had record attendance. Skate sharpeners were deluged daily with rusty blades.

I first discovered this ice-skating phenomenon on New Year’s afternoon. The warming house on Isles was open. I laced up my skates and headed out beyond the flooded rink to see how it was.

A little rough at first but then huge extended patches of smooth gliding — out in the open, out around the islands, over to the Icecropolis at the north end, ready and waiting for the Luminary Loppet celebration.

The tall, statuesque cylinders called out to be skated around in their circular formation. And in the days to come it was clear many were drawn to the same pattern: Multiple rings of blade imprints wove around each ice tube, creating circles upon circles and endless figure eights.

Skating the entire lake is so exhilarating; the sheer expansiveness of lake and sky, the gentle sound of the silver blades gliding across ice, weave together a sense of otherworldliness.

It’s magic. A unique and rare opportunity to move through heart-expanding beauty.

That first day there were patches of snow to skate around, creating a skating labyrinth meditation. I imagined skating through Georgia O’Keefe’s painting, “The Clouds,” only on ice instead of in the sky.

At the end of my skate, there was a warming house full of happy people. I left that day knowing the new year was off to a joyful beginning.

In the next few days the temps warmed and there was rain. Every time I drove by the lake I wondered what these conditions would do to it.

But then, the refreeze. And, incredibly, the rain and thaw had created a natural flooding of the ice. It was even smoother than before. And was so for weeks!

This was true for all of the city lakes and beyond. After the rain-thaw-refreeze there were no longer snow patches to skate around. Still a few rough places, but wonderfully smooth sections too. I skated out way beyond the limitations of any rink!

One skates over nature’s art beneath one’s blades. Areas of black ice are both thrilling and terrifying. It’s just a bottomless black; you can’t see where the ice begins or ends.

Then, many areas of small or large bubbles, white with air, caught within the dark mystery. They remind me of planets, suspended in time.

Occasionally there are large swaths of white ice, as in Milky Way Galaxy white. Star patterns are scattered across the ice surface, dark holes with tendrils reaching out toward the white ice.

Long extended cracks make the ice depth more visible and are a hazard to be vigilantly observed. If your blade finds a crack — danger! But there are also cracks that have been melted and frozen and smoothed over. Skate-able, they create a visual fault line, a long thin seam of dark ice, a ribbon of black, sandwiched between expanses of white ice.

And if the ice starts talking to you, then the on-the-edge (pun intended) nature of this experience increases exponentially. Rumbles beneath ice, sudden and inexplicable snaps and crackles are part of this stark winter landscape.

One day I skated in need of solace. Disheartening news had arrived that morning about a dear nephew who is struggling with stage 4 cancer. Later that day I heard the sad news of a difficult death of a beloved daughter from a good friend. Skating into such open arms of beauty helped soften the day’s sadness.

In a desire to share this incredible and rare experience, I started getting people to skate with me.

My sister, whom I grew up skating with in northern Minnesota (full confession: we were high school hockey cheerleaders together) came in from her western suburb for a glorious sunlit midday skate. We glided side by side as we caught up on family news.

Next day my friend Angie and I traversed the canal from Isles to Cedar. The canal was solid but a bit strewn with leaves, which slows the skates down. It was well travelled that day, a Saturday. A family passed us — two kids being pulled on a sled, everyone clearly having a good time.

The trip through the canal was so worth it; Cedar Lake, less populated than Isles, opened itself to us in wondrous ways. Huge expanses of smooth ice and of beautiful images beneath our glides.

One day in the warming house I found out that a young man, who was mentioning his frozen laces, had gone through the ice on the canal between Isles and Bde Maka Ska. I know at some point that canal eventually freezes, but he looked wet and cold and of course he was lucky: He had returned to tell the tale. So heading that direction was clearly not an option. Not yet.

One day just before sunset I decided to try Bde Maka Ska. I sat on the edge of a rock, laced up and headed out. Perhaps it was the particulars of the day, but it struck me as even better than Isles or Cedar, both of which had been fantastic.

Bde Maka Ska felt huge to me, and as I moved in from the edges the middle of the lake offered long expanses of smooth going. Much more black ice than I had seen on the other two lakes. Sunset colors in the sky were reflected across the ice and across the city skyscrapers so visible in the distance, gorgeous shades of indigo and smoky pink everywhere I turned.

The three-quarters moon was high in the sky. Unbelievably quiet. There were only three of us skating at that moment on the entire lake.

Finding such mystical beauty and serenity in the middle of the city surprises and delights me every time.

Other years I have found this same quality out on the lakes on cross country skis and snow. The part of me that loves skiing was saddened (and disturbed) by the lack of snow in January.

But it is clear that a gift of this winter was accessible lake ice. It’s so rare, especially for it to last so long.

We were lucky enough to still have great ice conditions on Sunday, Jan. 22, the day of the super blood wolf moon and also the evening of the lunar eclipse. That is a lot of energy swirling around in the sky.

I am an avid full moonrise viewer, so I already am of the opinion that Bde Maka Ska is the best lake for viewing the moonrise. I often am watching from shore, but to be able to be out in the middle for this occasion was a real treat! Also, the sky was cloudless, a minor miracle.

I managed to talk my husband and a couple of friends into joining me. Two of us on skates, myself and Angie, and two in boots, my husband Chris and Beth. Moonrise in Minneapolis was scheduled for 4:40 p.m., and we were at the lake’s edge right about then.

Fingers get a little cold lacing up those skates out in the wind, so we were efficient. At least it was above zero; the temp was hovering about 8 and the wind was moderate.

One lone photographer was set up with his tripod out in the middle. He agreed the moon would be visible within minutes, and we sort of estimated from where on the horizon it would emerge.

I took off skating on my own, because I love getting out in the middle and I love exploring the black ice. Before long I could see the hint of pale white through the trees, so pale it was almost translucent. In those first moments it seemed like one might be able to see all the way through the moon to the sky. The diameter was huge.

The blood moon refers to the eclipse, which happened later in the evening, turning the moon a blood-orange color. January is also the month the moon is closest to the earth in its trajectory. Historically, the January full moon is also called the wolf moon. It looked enormous.

My skates and I began gliding back to my friends in case they hadn’t spotted the magic yet, or in case it wasn’t visible yet from where they were standing. But then I heard them howling, as we had talked about doing, so I knew they had seen it. Someone further down the lake joined in.

There were a few people out skating, a handful here or there but really not many. After a howling-huddle, Angie and I skated out again to the middle and Chris, in his boots, moved cautiously from snow path to snow patch. The moon!

It was definitely at its hugest when it was closest to the horizon, but as it climbed the sky, its beauty deepened even as it appeared smaller in size. First the moon caught and reflected the glorious colors of the sunset, so a pale, pearlescent white became tinted with a soft sheen of a pinkish indigo, a hint of orange.

As the moon glided further above, even as we glided across the ice, its whiteness became a luminous orb, outlined by darkening, smoky blue-gray skies. One wanted to skate toward it forever.

We took a few pics, skated in circles, circled back to Chris who in his boots was mostly trying to navigate across snow and not ice. And before long we decided cold fingers and toes would bring an end to this magical outing.

It was hard to leave. We kept turning around for one last look. There’s a longing the moon inspires — its light so gentle, so reflective.

Its beauty in the winter sky hangs there, a movement so subtle, almost imperceptible, as it draws its circle around us. But then open smooth ice inspires a similar longing to reach beyond the usual perimeters.

The conditions and weather keep surprising us. If you didn’t get out in January there’s a chance such conditions could reappear this year, or perhaps not for years to come.

But when it does happen, I hope you find those skates, get in line at the sharpener and soar on your silver wings!

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