Skating Home Backward

How one man transformed vile, polluted, dank little swamp into the perfect glassy ice pond. A Wetland Restoration Comedy.



 Instant snow removal is the key to perfect ice. This is a fact of winter in western Montana that I learned the hard way. I'd been spoiled as a boy by wind that whistled across the Sand Coulee so incessantly snow just didn't have the chance to pile up. But here on the Pacific side of the Continental Divide, wet, balmy fronts slug it out all winter with arctic air pushing south from Canada. Midnight rain can give way to two feet of morning powder the afternoon sun reduces to slush, which freezes by midnight. After hissy, pathetic gusts announce a front moving in, all this weather usually happens in a dead calm.

There is even the odd season when most ice doesn't thicken enough to skate on. That's never the case, however, with the Mabel. Its bed is insulated by the brush that surrounds it, like a beer cooler, so once it freezes it seems to absorb more cold and freeze even deeper. Snow left to melt on the surface of the slough will eventually freeze as well, causing leprous disfigurements—welts and pits and hedgerows, or the crumbly, porous stuff we call Crackers, or even the bulbous, lumpy outrage called Casserole. The object of snow management is Glaze, that flawless, diaphanous glass that can only be laid down when rain or thaw is followed by a hard freeze. Or when I can summon the energy to flood the ice from a hole I've chopped.

Of course, I knew none of this the day the restored Mabel was finally frozen and ready for business. I thought I was ready too. It had been three decades, but I was convinced that skating was as indelible a muscle memory as riding a horse. For a week the weather had been clear and sharp, with subfreezing lows and small melts in the afternoons. I put on knee pads and went down to the Mabel with a pair of old hockey skates bandaged with duct tape. I laid the skates on my lawn chair and walked onto the ice in my rubber pig-farmer boots with the sort of mincing steps you'd employ on a ledge. Radish cocked his head like a bird and pawed at the hard thing his swimming hole had become. As usual, he started barking. After I'd gone a few steps there was a groan as the Mabel adjusted to my weight and a rumbling crack that echoed back from the Bitterroot Range on the other side of the river. But after this scare I walked the length of my ice without incident, and then back, looking for devious blue creases. What I did find was Glaze nine inches thick. My pulse was racing. There was no longer any excuse to put it off.

I laced my skates and stepped forth with ankles wobbling and feet that felt bound. From the start there was forward motion, halting at first, no faster than a runaway Rascal in a nursing home hallway, but velocity that increased as I gained confidence. Then it all came back: the angle of the stroke, the bent knees and stooped posture, the gliding rhythm. A neighbor doing breakfast dishes in her trailer looked up, startled to see someone in the backyard. Or maybe what alarmed her was the sight of a middle-aged man on skates. Her husband was off sleepwalking through a 12-hour shift at the paper mill. I waved, happy to be here instead of there.

I tried some backward skating, which I had begun to learn as a kid because not knowing how put you at a disadvantage in hockey. But when my feet nearly went out from under me, I decided I wasn't ready yet for anything in reverse. Plowing ahead, I skated six laps, about three miles, and then stumbled over to my chair, winded. My ankles would no longer support me. Sweat rolled down my spine. I whispered to my thudding heart, Whoa, there, big fella.

I woke up the next morning to discover that a foot of wet snow had fallen overnight, with a ton more still coming down. In the Jungle, a four-acre briar patch between the Mabel and the river, the fireberry hawthorns were bent double under the weight.

I didn't worry about the effect of the blizzard on the Mabel because I didn't know enough yet to worry. And besides, my feet were too sore to skate anyway. But when I walked down that afternoon to admire my fine green Glaze again, I was horrified to discover that not only had the snow not been blown away as it always was on the Sand Coulee, but the weight of it had fractured the ice and flooded the snow. That night the temperature dropped to zero. Next morning my Mabel was ridged and pocked and zitted, worthless to anyone except the whitetails that crossed it to get from the forest to our haystack. But by the end of the week a warm rain smoothed the Mabel's skin, and when the temperatures dropped again my beautiful Glaze was back.


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