Matthew Baxley was ice skating on a cold, silent night in the Boundary Waters Canoe Nature Reserve, boreal forest of Minnesota dotted with vast lakes, when he saw a fish sleeping under the black ice. Under his feet, an aquatic world was revealed in detail.
Each of his movements made the solid surface of the lake vibrate. The weight of a single skater can trigger growls and pops, even bangs worthy of a cartoon ray gun, reinforcing the feeling that you are sliding through space. With the early onset of winter and the lack of snow, Boundary Waters has transformed into a natural and perfectly smooth playground.
“There is no resistance, you have the impression of flying,” says Matthew Baxley, who recounts his adventures in the discovery of the wilderness of Minnesota in his podcast dedicated to Boundary Waters.
Men have been sliding on frozen water for millennia. The oldest pair of ice skates ever discovered, made from animal bones, dates from 1800 BC. Most of these objects have been unearthed in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Finland. In these frozen regions where water is omnipresent, skates are very useful for getting around in winter. Where the walkers progress with difficulty, the skaters slide easily.
Even today, “wild skating”, that is, the practice of ice skating on unmaintained lakes and rivers, allows you to move and escape. In the midst of the pandemic, this outdoor activity has gained many followers in the cold regions of the United States because of the feeling of freedom it offers.
According to Dan Riegelman, owner of Riedell Skates, a Minnesota-based ice skate maker, sales fell sharply as indoor rinks closed due to COVID-19 last spring. However, they are on the rise again in the northern United States, where it is possible to skate outdoors. This enthusiasm has kept the company afloat.
“The sport has seen its popularity explode,” says Paxson Woelber, a wild ice skater who lives in Anchorage, Alaska. He explains that every store in the area ran out of skates in October, with locals spending the winter looking for the perfect ice cream.
“Finding good ice cream is something really special,” he says. “Most of the time you can’t find anything. But, when you discover this incredible mirror, this layer of ice that stretches between the mountains, it is simply incredible ”.
When sliding on a rugged Alaskan ice rink, Paxson Woelber isn’t shod on ice hockey or figure skates, but Nordic ice skates. Thanks to the hinges attached to their steel blades, these allow skaters to raise their heels and give a boost to every movement.
“You have more stability on uneven ice,” explains Ben Prime, store owner Nordic Skater in Newbury, New Hampshire. The length of the blades, which can measure between 38 and 53 cm, makes it easier to cover long distances. Skaters can complete their outfit with pointed poles to gain balance and power, a rescue bag containing a rope to throw at a person who has fallen into the water and pocket ice picks to get back on the ice.