Thursday, February 19, 2009

Fear of Falling

Joe While my first try at Nordic skating had kind of a rocky ending, it was nevertheless a lot of fun. So when word came down that Jennifer's coworkers were planning a Saturday afternoon skating excursion I joined up right away. I was especially glad to hear that this time there would be a number of beginners in the group.

We all agreed to meet at Fjällskog, the place we rented the skates from the last time, when it opened at 10 on Saturday morning. I was waiting outside the door when they opened, and had already gotten my pair of size 44s by the time the next batch of people showed up: Z., one of Jennifer's coworkers, along with her two visitors from her home in Poland: her boyfriend, who we'll call X. (too many collisions on the initials, bad bucket design I guess), and a friend who is working in Stockholm for a few weeks, T. Unfortunately for them, it turned out that I had gotten nearly the last pair of skates in the shop1, and all that remained were two pairs of 43s, which did no good for anyone. T. had purchased a pair of hockey skates the day before, and was eager to go, so they collectively agreed that they would come along anyway and hang out at the lake (which had been Jennifer's plan all along, so that worked out pretty well).

After a few minutes, the rest of our party arrived: Jennifer's coworker N., and our Swiss friends G. and D. (in other words, the skating party from our last outing). We loaded up into a couple of cars and took off. Our destination this time was Skarholmen on Lake Mälaren, and to give you an idea of just how far away that is let me just say that when we got there we were immediately confronted with an Uppsala city bus stop. Yes, the #20 runs all the way to the lake, as it turns out.

After negotiating the somewhat treacherous steps down to the ice, we spent a little time getting set for the skating, while Jennifer, X., and Z. prepared to head off on a walk along the edge of the lake. By the time we were actually ready to go, it had become clear that this was not going to be as smooth an outing as the last time. In fact, except for N., the native, the rest of us had all picked up a more or less significant handicap. G. had just received a pair of vintage skates, which had both cool leather straps and boots that were two sizes too big for him; D. had gone and gotten herself a pair of nice skates secondhand, but they were clap skates and hence a new experience, and T., as mentioned before, was on hockey skates, not ideal for the occasionally rough natural ice. And me? Why, I had developed a sudden fear of falling, as a result of which my skating abilities, limited as they were to begin with, had largely evaporated.

As a group, then, we were not feeling as ambitious this time around. We went out about 3.5 km (unlike Norrviken, there were no markers around Skarholmen, but it was pretty clear where we had been, looking at a map later), at which point we all agreed it was time to head back. Also unlike Norrviken, the track from Skarholmen isn't a big loop. Skarholmen is at one end of a 6 km track that leads to the little village of Hammarskog, and from there it continues on the next 74 km to Stockholm (with three little overland crossings along the way). As it was colder this time, conditions were quite a bit different. On the plus side, there was no inch of water on top of the ice (a fact which I was grateful for the one time I did fall), and there was absolutely no wind, so going back was just as easy as going out; on the negative side, it's later in the season, so the glassy smoothness of the ice is gone, and things were a little rough in parts. It was also a beautiful, sunny day, which made for much better pictures than the last time around (see the gallery for the complete collection). And this time we had a soundtrack: every now and then, the whole lake would reverberate with a deep "Boom" as the ice cracked—very impressive.

Back nearer the shore, Jennifer and company had a nice couple of hours strolling the ice, which other than the path was covered in a nice bit of snow so as to not be treacherous (there were actually quite a few people just out for a stroll in the middle of the lake). They passed by some ice fishers pulling tiny fish out of a tiny hole in the ice, watched the high tech snow plow clearing the trail, and Jennifer sat for a while on the iced-over pier and started a letter to her mother.

When we got back, quite exhausted, we met at some rocks on the shore for lunch. We had packed egg salad sandwiches, coffee, and a thermos of that ultimate Swedish wintersport concoction: blueberry soup. Unfortunately, I poured most of the soup on my leg, which was not, I gather, how the locals do things, but the part I did manage to drink went down something grateful. Anyway, the original plan had been to head back out after lunch, but it turned out that we were all too tired. N. took a carload of folks back into town, while Jennifer and I took a last, short stroll with G. and D. before heading back in ourselves.

To celebrate a successful day of skating, we went back to G. and D.'s place for a bit of Guitar Hero and some yummy crepes. Then it was home, and a well earned rest.

1 Why the shortage of skates? Sunday was the day of the annual Uppsala–Stockholm skating race, Vikingarännet. This is an 80 km race held on some Sunday of February (the organizers pick two likely looking days in advance, then declare 5 days out whether or not it looks like the weather will hold; some years the ice just isn't good enough and the race is called off), which starts in either Uppsala or Stockholm (again, announced 3 days in advance, and picked so that the race runs downwind) and ends in the other. There are usually about 4000 entrants, and the competitive class this year finished in the 2 hours and 40 minutes range. In other words, they skated 80 km in roughly the time it takes me to skate 10 km. Oh, the ignominy.
Oh, right, the point. Fjällskog is the only place in town to rent skates, they don't take reservations, and they aren't open on Sundays. So most people who needed to rent for the race probably rented on Friday.

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