As we laced up our skates at the edge of Green Lake on Saturday, the cold numbing our bare fingers, I thought, “We’re crazy.”
“What?” my husband Derek said, shouldering our backpack of emergency gear and snacks.
“Oh,” I said, realizing I had voiced by opinion out loud. “We’re just kind of crazy to be going out in this cold … but it looks like we aren’t the only crazy ones,” I added, nodding to the ice fishermen roaming among the ice shacks in the distance.
The high temperature that day was forecasted in the teens, and the wind chill factor was in the negative teens. But the sun was shining, and the skating conditions were good — something that would change as soon as the next snowstorm buried the ice. I was eager to get at least one more skate in, even if it meant braving an especially cold day.
Pushing off from the shore, we glided over the ice, navigating over frozen tire ruts and away from the ice shacks. We headed north, into the wind, which seemed to pick up the further we skated from shore.
With its northwest end in the town of Dedham and its southeast end in Ellsworth, Green Lake covers about 3,000 acres and is home to a variety of fish, including lake trout, brook trout, landlocked salmon and smallmouth bass. The lake also features a few islands, and its clear water makes it an especially popular place for water sports in the summertime. The Lake Stewards of Maine Volunteer Monitoring Program grades the lake’s water at “above average.”
We had started our adventure that day at the town-owned and operated boat launch on Nicolin Road in Ellsworth, which is located about the midway point on the long body of water. The boat launch is free to use, year round, and the parking lots are plowed.
The other boat launch on the lake is at Jenkin’s Beach, a family-owned facility on the northwest end of the lake that features a wide sandy beach, a swimming area and rental boats and paddleboards. A fee is required to use the boat launch or the beach, which is located on Green Lake Road in Dedham.
Though our natural tendency was to skate out, away from the shore, the further we skated, the rougher the ice seemed to get. And while neither of us know much about how ice forms, we surmised that the bumpy pattern may have formed due to the wind. In an effort to escape the freezing gusts and lumpy ice, we headed to the opposite shore to a small cove and the mouth of Great Brook. There we skated around a tiny island and half-submerged tree trunks, and as we guessed, the ice was much smoother in a place so sheltered from the wind. Exercising caution, we turned around well before the flowing water of the brook, and near the shore of the island, we dusted a thin layer of snow off a log and sat down in the sun.
We didn’t rest long. Even though we both wore snow pants and long johns, it wasn’t long before the cold seeped from the log into our rear ends. After snacking on a few chips and a drink, we headed back to the boat launch, happy to have the wind at our backs, pushing us toward our destination.
Unfortunately, it couldn’t be all smooth sailing. The wind pushed us steadily southeast, but if we had let it have its way, we would have ended up far east of the boat launch. So for the last leg of our journey, we had struggle perpendicular to the wind, which had picked up in the late afternoon. Hitting the right side of my face, each gust stole my breath and burned my face.
At one point, I stopped skating and held my mittened hand up to block the relentless wind from my face as it pushed me in the wrong direction. Derek, skating ahead of me, turned back and laughed, motioning for me to continue skating toward the shore, where we finally found shelter and smoother ice.
I don’t blame him for laughing. I’m sure I looked pretty pathetic, sheltering my face from the wind while it pushed me backwards across the lake. And while I’m sure that to many people that experience might seem like the opposite of fun, to me it was just a comical moment in our little adventure. As it turned out, a little cold weather couldn’t spoil a beautiful day spent outdoors.
Tips for outdoor skating adventures
Since purchasing a pair of skates a couple years ago, I’ve learned a few things about skating on wild ice. Here are just a few tips that might be helpful to you if you’re thinking of picking up the activity:
- Before you go, make sure the ice is thick enough to be safe. Often the easiest way to do this is to ask ice fishermen out on the lake, since they’re drilling holes in the ice for their fishing lines. You could also ask local residents who know the body of water well. In general, warm, shallow ponds tend to ice over first, while the deep, cold lakes take longer. The Maine Warden Service provides ice thickness guidelines, and here’s a story I wrote about ice safety.
- Ice weakens and melts near flowing water, so stay away from inlets and outlets, such as brooks. Also, ice sometimes melts around boulders and rocky beaches because the rocks absorb the heat of the sun.
- Carry safety gear with you such as a rope and handheld ice picks, just in case you do manage to fall through the ice and need help getting out.
- It’s safer to skate with a companion or group. That way, if something goes wrong, there is someone there who can help immediately.
- Watch out for irregularities in the ice such as bumps, ice fishing holes, ruts left by vehicles and air pockets. These can all cause you to fall.
- Consider carrying a backpack that contains drinks, snacks, extra clothing (such as a face warmer), chemical heat packets, a first aid kit, emergency gear (rope and ice picks), sunglasses, sunscreen, chapstick and a map of the body of water you’re on.
- Sometimes it’s hard to find anywhere to sit and rest when you’re skating on a big body of water. Consider packing a small cushion so you don’t have to sit directly on the ice, which is of course very cold.
- It’s easy to get lost on a large body of water. To prevent this, consider carrying a GPS device or a compass and map, if you know how to use them. If you aren’t confident about navigating, don’t wander far from where you access the body of water, make sure you can identify landmarks on the shoreline near the access point, and don’t lose sight of these landmarks.
- On open bodies of water, the wind can be much stronger than in the forest or even along the shore. Be sure to dress warmer than you think may be necessary. You can always take off layers of clothing if you get hot. A warm hat that covers your ears and warm gloves or mittens are crucial. Your coat should be capable of blocking wind. And the more insulated and padded your pants are, the warmer you’ll be and the less it’s going to hurt if you fall.
If you like seeing us brave the cold, check out my “1-minute hike” of Young Tunk Mountain on Valentine’s Day of 2016. It ended up being the coldest day of the year, with the temperature rising to 6 degrees Fahrenheit at noon. We managed to have a good time that day, too, thanks to warm gear, and a few heat packs.