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Living—and Playing—in a Frozen Paradise

Lower Cascade Lake, Keene. Photograph by Mary Thill

On Saturday the ice north of Bulwagga Bay, off Port Henry on Lake Champlain, was thick enough to support a red pickup truck amid a scattering of fishing tents and shanties. The same day, on Simond Pond in Tupper Lake, 855 anglers walked on hard water for the Northern Challenge Ice Fishing Derby. Organizers don’t allow vehicles because “once they leave shore they don’t have insurance,” explained tournament chairman Dave McMahon. He credited a lack of insulating snow cover this winter for good ice growth. Fishermen estimate the ice on both Simond Pond and Bulwagga at 20 inches thick.

“I can’t remember how thick the ice was, but it was so pretty and perfectly clear this year!” e-mailed Holly Burke, who helped with the annual ice harvest on Raquette Lake Saturday. The ice is stored and used by Raquette Lake General Store to power their coolers well into summer.

A sheet of smooth ice is bliss. On Saturday, on the drive back from Bulwagga Bay, I stopped at Lower Cascade Lake, between Lake Placid and Keene. This might be the most reliable skating pond in the Adirondacks. Wind speeding between the high cliffs of Cascade and Pitchoff mountains polishes the surface.

As I skated up and down the narrow lake, two guys passed a puck and a group of four boys in hard-soled boots skittered onto the surface. The kids had just climbed the vertical ice on the side of Pitchoff. They were still sliding around like Bambi as I drove home, passing on the way a new skating track around Mirror Lake, in Lake Placid, and the biggest Saranac Lake Winter Carnival ice palace in years.

A Nordic-skater friend Saturday skated with a group from Charlotte, Vermont, to the Palisades, on the Adirondack side, and back. There is still open water at the widest point of Lake Champlain, but if the cold remains consistent, maybe the main lake will ice over, which hasn’t happened since March 2, 2007. Anyhow, this skater friend emails regular wild-skating updates. He recommends consulting a Yahoo group called Vermont Nordic Skating and the Vermont-based website Lake Ice.

Charts on the website show growth-rate calculations for ice at different temperatures (3 inches per day at 0°F, a quarter inch at 30°F).

It also offers a general estimate (right) of how much weight different thicknesses can support: 4 inches for ice fishing, 15 inches for a truck.

“As with everything else about ice, make sure you measure what the ground truth is (and don’t use your truck as your testing tool). There are lots of reasons it could have grown less than expected and not many that it might have allowed it to grow more,” the Lake Ice site cautions.

On hot days I feel pity for southerly New Yorkers who can’t swim in their urban waters, and this time of year I am sorry they can’t skate on them, whether for lack of cold or freedom. A New York Times article by Adirondack Life contributor Lisa Foderaro reports that the Central Park Conservancy requires five inches of ice thickness before it will allow skating on a man-made reflecting pool, which seems overly cautious.

Most of the women in a hockey camp I attended last year had never skated on a pond; they were from Connecticut and Pennsylvania, and even Vermont. We in the Adirondacks live in a frozen paradise. While backcountry skiers are lamenting a lack of snow in the High Peaks this winter, ice offers glide and compensations.

At 1 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday, February 8 and 9, the Wild Center, in Tupper Lake, offers a program on the Beauty of Adirondack Ice. Peter Wasilewski, NASA Scientist Emeritus, will discuss geometrically distinct ice crystals of Lake Placid, Cascade and Tupper Lakes. He also has a fascination with Adirondack icicles, and the curves and straightaways on the bobsled run in Lake Placid.

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