Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Skating Party

It's known the skating pond conceals
A family of enormous eels
Edward Gorey, The Iron Tonic
JoeYesterday was an exceedingly Swedish day for us, as we went on a långfärdsskridsko with our Swiss friends G. and D., and one of Jennifer's coworkers, N. To put it as simply as possible, we went ice skating, but it was an ice skating experience unlike any I've had before. Just to set the stage a bit, when N. asked earlier in the week if I skated, I answered confidently that I knew my way around a pair of skates. I'm not a great skater—there weren't constant opportunities for ice skating growing up in southern Alabama—but in my teen and college years I did my best to make up for lost time. Why, I thought to myself, I own a pair of hockey skates! I once skated for the better part of an hour with my hands clasped behind my back! Can I skate, indeed. In retrospect, the fact that those hockey skates had been sitting unused in my basement for the better part of fifteen years should have given me pause, but perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself there.

My first hint that this would be a different skating experience was shortly after G. and D. picked us up, as we pulled up in front of N.'s apartment and saw N. waiting for us, a large pack strapped to his back and a pair of cross country poles in his hand. Hmm. Next stop: Fjällskog, an outdoor equipment store in Uppsala, to rent our skates. Swedish långskridskor are completely different from my rusted hockey skates. To start with, the blades are about 45 cm long, with long curve at the tip. Stranger still, the boots are actually telemark ski boots, and the blades are attached to a long board which you strap to the bottom of the boot. They come in a bag which includes a wrench for adjusting the angle of the blade and some other hardware whose purpose was, at the time, unclear.

Armed with our rented skates, we drove off towards Stockholm. Our destination was the village of Norrvik, on the shores of Lake Norrviken, about 40 km south of Uppsala. There are plenty of places to skate closer to Uppsala, but we were meeting some of D.'s friends who live in the Stockholm area, so we wanted to meet halfway. We weren't really sure what to expect, but I certainly hadn't anticipated the scene we were confronted with on our arrival at the Norvikken IP parking lot: there were cars parked all the way to the road, and people all over the place. So, it wasn't to be a quiet afternoon of skating in the middle of the Swedish wilderness.

Norrviken, as it turns out, is about 7 km long, and all winter the local sports club keeps a 14 km loop cleared for skating. Yes, 14 km, with more Swedes than I could count zipping around it. As we looked for a place to sit while strapping on our blades, N. began to explain all of the extra equipment. The odd bit of hardware turned out to be a pair of ice picks to wear around your neck, for you to grab in case you fall through the ice. "Not that we'll fall through the ice today," N. assured us. Just in case, though, he had all of his safety equipment: a dry pack full of spare clothes, which doubles as a flotation device, a rope to throw to anyone who does go through, and a pole to check the ice as you go.

N. wasn't the only one there with the full kit, but he was clearly in the minority. The majority of the skaters could be divided into three camps. First, sporty skaters, mostly decked out in techno gear, but with a small group of colorfully clad people (mostly older men) in traditional skating garb (Scandinavian sweater, knickers, big socks). Next were the families, mostly with a horde of small skaters around them, but a fair number of young couple pushing baby carriages across the ice as well. Finally, there were the dog walkers. There was actually a snow track that appears to have been left for the dogs to run on as their owners skate along side.

The ice, let me assure you, was quite thick. It's hard to be sure just how thick, but you could clearly see that there was a good 50 cm of ice. The slightly warmer weather along the coast this week was apparently partly responsible for the masses of people at Norrviken, as the radio that morning had started to recommend heading inland for the safest skating.

My first lesson in humility for the day came the instant I stood up from strapping on the blades. Turns out that a decade and a half might have been long enough for me to forget how to skate. A few minutes of sliding around and I began to regain a little of my former on-ice stability, but I can't say that I ever got completely comfortable. It's possible that the difference in skates was somewhat to blame, but I suspect that played a smaller role than I would like to believe. As long as you aren't trying to turn sharply or stop suddenly, the skates aren't really so different. The long blades do let you get up to a fair clip without trying too hard, and they also handle rough ice better.

Not that the last part was too important yesterday, because once we waved farewell to Jennifer and headed off to the circuit it quickly became clear that the ice was quite good. The cleared path was about 6 m wide for the most part, although the snow cover on the rest of the lake was not so thick that you couldn't skate over it in a pinch. As the path started out we passed a small area cleared for some bandy practice, and then a good smelling fire that someone had built out on the ice, but within a few minutes all signs of civilization were behind us. It was all very picturesque, with the spire of Norrvik church rising from behind the hills around the snow covered lake, no sound except the scraping of the blades on the ice.

2 km I was felling pretty good, as we took the first turn through the center of the lake so that we could head back and get some food. The next 2 km were a little harder, but still we all made it back in good order to the picnic table Jennifer had scored for us out on the ice. As we fortified ourselves on sandwiches, blueberry soup, and Swiss chocolate, D.'s friends showed up, complete with tiny child in carriage. We finished eating as we made the introductions, and then we headed back out.

Now, the plan the second time out was to do the whole 14 km loop. While several muscles I didn't recall possessing had stiffened up somewhat over lunch, after a few minutes the loosened up again, and any shakiness I may have felt at the end of the first round had passed. At the first turn I was feeling good, so I didn't turn back with the first member of our group but instead headed on. At the second turn there was some discussion of turning back, but then someone pointed out that the next turn wasn't very far away, so we all headed out for that one.

Well, it was actually a bit further than it looked, that next turn, and by the time we got there some of those new muscles were starting to protest. Just as we made it I took my first tumble for the day, which was jarring but left me with no longer term injury. Now another difference about wilderness skating came to light, however: with a little bit of sun out, all that lovely ice was covered with a nice coat of water, and now I was wearing a lot of it. There are several reasons that this wasn't a serious problem. For one thing, the temperature was just around 0°C all day; for another, I'd opted for the fleece top instead of a wool sweater, and silk long underwear, so I was still quite cozy really; and finally, N. had brought a spare pair of gloves to replace my now quite thoroughly wet ones. Still, I was starting to fell a little shaky, so I opted to make the turn and head back. I also borrowed a pair of poles from N., which added a lot of stability.

That was at the 5 km mark. Things were fine as I headed across the lake, but when reached the other side and turned towards home I learned the the day's final lesson: pay attention to the wind. Yes, 5 km of skating is fine with a light breeze at your back, but the 5 km home into a nasty headwind is inte så bra. With 4 km to go the arms were starting to get tired; with 3 km to go it was time to take a break by sitting on someone's dock and watching an impromptu peewee hockey game (for which one of the goalies seemed to be wearing cross country skis, which seemed an odd choice to me at the time). That's where I was when N. and G. caught up with me, and where I had to finally admit defeat. I gave N. his poles back, which I think he was grateful for, as they do make a big difference when heading into the wind. As for me, I was grateful for the fact that I could just pop those blades right off my boots and march back on the shore.

I made it about halfway back before turning inland to pick up the main road through Norrvik, which is where I met everyone else. The ride back to Uppsala was a quiet affair, with Jennifer performing her self-ascribed duty of talking to the driver to keep him awake, while the ret of us dozed in the back seat. We made it back to Fjällskog at 5 minutes to 4, just in time to return our skates. Then it was off to home where I had a nice long soak in a hot tub, followed by a dinner of lentil soup and grilled cheese, and then an evening of sitting on the couch and groaning every time I moved.

I'm not sure that I can claim, as Calvin once did, that I consider the day seized and throttled; but I can pretty confidently state that the day has seized and throttled me. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go back to lying down for a while.

UPDATE: As Roald Amundsen said, "Eventyr er bare dårlig planlegging." A few minutes spent at the website of Norrvikens IP revealed this fascinating factoid: there's a city bus that runs from one end of the lake to the other. No need to skate against the wind at all, just park upwind, skate to the other end, and take the bus back to your car. Should have seen that one coming, I suppose.

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