FAIRLEE, Vt. — If you prepare meticulously for the worst, the worst actually can be fun.
That's how Nordic skating enthusiast Jamie Hess explains the attitude toward his favorite sport in Sweden, where many skaters like to brag about crashing through the ice, clawing their way out, then continuing on their way.
In Vermont — here the ice was a solid 12 inches thick the day I took one of Hess' workshops —I didn't need the ice picks, rope or spare clothing that serious "wild" or cross-country skaters carry. But I was unprepared in other ways, what with my weak ankles and mistaken belief that the groomed trail winding around Lake Morey was only two miles, not four.
In the end, though, it actually was kind of fun.
Popular in Scandinavia and northern Europe for centuries, long-distance, outdoor skating remains a relatively obscure pursuit in the United States. Hess, who fell in love with the sport on a trip to Sweden in 1999, is credited with boosting its popularity through his workshops, tours and Nordic Skater shop in Norwich, which sells skates specially designed to skim over ice that hasn't been smoothed by a Zamboni machine.
The lakes of Vermont and New Hampshire offer some of the best conditions, including the four-mile loop on Lake Morey, which was expanded from two miles last year and is the nation's longest groomed ice skating trail. It was blanketed beautifully in fog when a friend and I arrived for Hess's three-hour workshop, and I immediately imagined gliding into the mist toward the snow-covered hills.
The fog soon dissipated, along with any notions I had of achieving gracefulness. As Hess explained, Nordic skating is closest in movement to skate skiing, in which cross-country skiers use diagonal strokes to propel themselves. Inline skating experience would be the next best thing, followed by ice skating in hockey skates. Figure skating — ike the lessons I took a few years ago — doesn't help much if you're used to using the skate's toe pick to kick off from, Hess said.
"Push to the side, don't kick and glide, that's how it works on these skates," he said.
Nordic skates consist of long blades with slightly curved tips that clip onto cross-country ski boots. The longer blades are better able to skim over bumps in the ice that would likely trip up conventional blades.
"It's sort of like if you have a truck with big tires — you don't go into the pot holes the way a car with small tires would," Hess told me and about a dozen other students. "If the ice is really bumpy, you're sitting on top of the bumps instead of dipping into the dips between the bumps."
We started behind the Lake Morey Resort at the southern tip of the lake. After a few minutes of instruction, Hess ushered us onto the ice, where most of us struggled for balance as we navigated the ridges and bumps along the opening stretch of ice.
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The more I tried to think about pushing side to side and keeping my knees over my toes, the more nervous I got until I fell three times in quick succession. But smoother ice lay ahead, and eventually I was able to get into enough of a rhythm that I actually could look around a bit and enjoy the scenery.
Wessel Kok, 44, who grew up skating in the Netherlands and now travels to Lake Morey once a year to skate, advises new skaters to take it slow. He compares Nordic skating to riding a bicycle: eventually you become proficient enough that aside from checking your balance now and then, you don't have to focus all your energy on what you're doing.
"Don't push yourself too much," he said. "You don't have to race all the time. You can also just take your time and rest when you need to rest, and just make it a joyful event."
Though he has competed in numerous marathons and races, Kok said winning isn't his main motivation.
"It's the air, the openness. I love to be outside ... to be part of this open space here," he said.
Kok, who lives in Durham, N.C., said one of his first skating experiences in the United States was a tour of New York's Lake George.
"It was just amazing to cross a big open space while you're skating," he said. "Sometimes it's a little overwhelming because here it's very quiet, but sometimes in those big open spaces you hear all those sound because of the ice cracking, because it's still freezing, it's expanding."
Hess tells his students to enjoy the different sounds the ice makes.
"When the ice is making noise, generally it's a good thing. Especially the deep booming sounds that make you think a big hole's about to open up right under you. That's actually a good sound because it means the ice is thickening and strengthening," he said.
The loudest noise I heard was the soft scratching of my blades as I wobbled over the shallow air pockets in the ice and the cheerful greetings as one by one, nearly all the members of my group passed me by. Hess's 14-year-old son had whizzed by twice.
Tim Garrand of Londonderry and his 14-year-old daughter, Danielle, both admitted they were worried they were in over their heads for the first few minutes on Nordic skates despite years of cross country skiing and inline skating experience.
"Both of us were thinking, 'Oh my God, I don't think I'm going to be able to do this," Tim Garrand said. "But once we got a little more used to it, we had a great time."
So great in fact, that they returned to the lake the next day and skated for 12 miles. As for me, I started to get discouraged about halfway around the lake, until I suddenly realized that I could simply unclip my blades and walk the rest of the way. That knowledge alone was enough to get me to the finish line.
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