Ice Skating Adventure

Ice Skating

If you happen to live where it’s still cold enough, ice skating can be a great outdoor adventure.  As a kid,  my weak ankles didn’t help me as an ice skater, but with a hockey stick in my hands I  did alright.  Each year, a spot in the park behind our house would be flooded to freeze up nicely.  Often the rink went unused until a group of us arrived with our hockey gear and began to mess around.

Hockey Adventures

Our gear included skates, a hockey stick and, on most days, a hockey puck and on other days a chunk of ice.  We had never heard of padding, helmets mouth guards or anything like that.  We did feel the pain and thus had one major rule . . . the puck had to stay on the ice.  Those that couldn’t seem to accomplish that were ridiculed and eventually came around.

As we got older, our hockey playing moved to a larger expanse of natural ice and, it seemed, fewer kids were able to control the puck enough to keep it on the ice.  I suspect that came from the discovery of college and professional hockey games on TV where getting the puck into the air is seen as an attribute.  While a couple of my friends continued with hockey on high school and then college teams and did quite well, I put away the hockey stick for good.

Lake Skating

Lake Mendota ice

Playing Baseball on Lake Mendota
By uwdigitalcollections [CC BY 2.0]

The skates, hockey skates not figure skates,  still came in handy from time to time.  One year the entire expanse of Lake Mendota, not far from my home in Madison, Wisconsin, froze solidly and smoothly across it’s entire expanse.  This condition was the result of a favorable combination of rain that froze to smooth the ice and no snow to get in the way of skates. Unlike the photo to the right, there was no wet ice at the surface – it was hard and dry, perfect for skating for miles and miles.  Much like the ice in the historic photo below.

Ice Carnival 1916

Ice Carnival 1916
University of Wisconsin

Well, actually, in a lake the size of Mendota with 15 square miles of surface area, the ice does compress together forming pressure ridges. This particular year some of the ridges were three or four feet high requiring a stop and careful climb to get over.  Still, there were very long stretches of flat ice between the ridges where we could glide along as fast as we could go.  I particularly enjoyed skimming along near the shore where every nook and cranny was available to see from an entirely new perspective.

pressure ridge develops in an ice cover as a result of a stress regime established within the plane of the ice. Since water in a lake, as it expands into ice, cannot push the shore away, it necessarily buckles upward in ridges across the lake.

Skating History

Hendrick Avercamp - A Scene on the Ice

A Scene on the Ice
by Hendrick Avercamp
first half of 17th century

Ice skating has been practiced from an era about 5,000 years ago in Finland when the ‘skates’ were sharpened bone attached to the skater’s feet with leather straps.  The oldest skate found with a metal blade was discovered in Scandinavia and dated to 200 A.D.   It used a thin strip of copper folded and attached to the sole of a leather shoe. Around 800 years ago, the Dutch developed steel-bladed skates and the sport began to spread around the world.

While skates were originally used as a means of transportation, Avercamp’s watercolor shows people enjoying skating as a leisure-time activity.  It also shows us competitive behavior in the form of ice hockey.  Various competitions have evolved around ice skating including speed skating and figure skating as well as hockey.  Special skate designs have been developed to serve each of these activities.

Skating Safety

For skating enthusiasts that enjoy skating on lakes and rivers, the number one issue is finding ice that is uniformly solid enough to hold the skater without breaking.  Once in the water it becomes very difficult to get out as, typically, either the skater cannot attain a grip on the ice or the ice breaks away while attempting to climb out.  This, plus heavy winter clothing can force a skater to stay in the icy water too long for survival.  Hypothermia and drowning are common causes of death in these situations.

First, never skate alone and second, skate only on good ice.  Depending upon where you are, there are some indicators of solid ice, like ice fishermen using the area.  They are fully aware of the thickness of the ice.  Local bait shops or resorts may also be able to advise you on the quality of the ice.  The Minnesota Department Natural Resources suggests that you really need a minimum four inches of new, clear ice for skating.  Unless someone has checked before you, you will need to cut through the ice and measure it yourself.  The easiest way to get a hole in the ice is to use a cordless drill and a long, wood auger bit of at least 5/8 inches diameter. It takes only a few seconds to drill through four inches of ice.  A wood auger bit is necessary to pull the ice chips out of the hole so your bit doesn’t get stuck.  Honeycombed ice, ice with obvious cracks or ice with embedded snow may still be too weak.  If you drill a hole in the ice, then stand on the ice and the water comes up through the hole,  the ice isn’t strong enough.

Even after you have determined that the ice is safe,  it is important to continually be aware of changing conditions.  Springs bubbling up under the ice in lakes and currents from streams can cause dangerously thin areas as can a variety of other factors.  As a last resort,  carry heavy nails or ice claws to help you get out of the water if you do happen to fall in.


Learning to SkateLearning to skate requires patience, practice and the willingness to fall down . . . a lot.  If you can, take some lessons; most indoor skating venues offer them.  If you live in a colder climate,  you will be able to take your basic skills outdoors and enjoy all that the activity has to offer.  If you’d like some motivation,  try our latest free ebook Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge, available at the Discover Club.

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