Ralph Gardner Jr: Skating On Thin Ice

Feb 3, 2018

Skating at Ooms Pond, Chatham, NY
Credit Ralph Gardner Jr

I had a small epiphany while ice skating last week at Ooms Pond, a conservation area in Chatham, New York. My epiphany was that I should switch to yoga.

This realization occurred during either my first or second spill, or to be more precise during the act of attempting to struggle back to my feet, when I was finally forced to admit that I wasn’t as limber as I used to be.

There were also other factors at play in my decision to adopt the ancient Indian practice of mind and body as soon as possible. Those included the fact that my bones creak even while not wearing skates. For instance, walking up and down stairs.

And that I’d just come from breakfast at the Bartlett House, an entirely charming spot with some of the best baked goods around. That’s where, over shirred eggs, my companions Bruce and Mitch, extolled the benefits of their yoga class.

In my own defense, the cards, or rather the ice, was stacked against me on that otherwise crystalline Saturday morning.

I typically skate while wielding a hockey stick. That implement allows me the illusion that with a little more ice time I might be an NHL prospect. Also, it helps hold me up, sort of like a crutch. No, exactly like a crutch.

My self-confidence was further undermined by temperatures that had hit the mid-forties by the time we donned our skates. My excitement at being able to perform triple lutzes, or whatever my personal goals given my age, experience and athleticism (perhaps reaching walking speeds without falling and suffering a concussion) was leavened by the fear of falling through the ice and creating a scene that might involve the rescue squad, drones and a small mention on the local news.

However Bruce insisted the ice remained as thick as the sides of a bomb shelter as he merrily, and literally, skated circles around me.

That’s another resolution I made while picking myself off the ice and nursing my aching elbow – that I really must purchase hockey skates.

I can’t recall what possessed me to buy figure skates. Knowing me, it probably had something to do with a deal.

But believe it or not, this commentary, or what’s left of it, isn’t about the dangers but the benefits of ice skating. Primarily poetic. As opposed to aerobic. Though that, too.

It seems to me that there are two types of sports – those with a strong sightseeing component (skiing, skating, swimming, running perhaps) and those without (football, basketball, baseball). Regarding the former, at least among those of us who pursue such pastimes peripatetically as opposed to professionally, the backdrop is as important as the activity. With the latter, the focus is on the ball and driving it through the hoop, the goal posts, over the right field wall, or whatever and racking up points.

It’s been a couple of years since I last skated – rustiness, I also comforted myself, contributing to my decrepitude – but when I think of the sport its allure has at least as much to do with the scenery as with the physicality or athleticism.

The paragon of skating isn’t the Olympic Games but its portrayal in Dutch paintings by the likes of Pieter Brueghel. It’s a community activity, the transporting of social life and all its charms and rituals, onto frozen water.

On the canvas the eye is drawn not only to those performing graceful turns but also pausing to chat, sliding a curling stone along the smooth surface, or taking a small child onto the ice for the first time, helping the little one overcome his fears and initiating her into the frigid joys of nature.

It’s also about ideal circumstances. Those relatively rare instances when nature gets its act together and seems to rally for the gentle benefit of humanity.

We’re fortunate to have a small pond of our own. But you can usually count on one hand the number of days a winter when it’s skatable, when the ice is both smooth, clear and thick. If it’s cold enough it may just as well have a heavy coating of snow.

I grew up in New York City and learned to skate at Wollman Rink in Central Park. I suppose that if there’s a modern day equivalent of one of those Dutch skating scenes that would be it: circling the ice among a throng of humanity as the skyscrapers along Central Park South, their lights twinkling on at dusk, bear witness to your attempts to remain upright, reach impressive speeds, and avoid collisions.

Did I also mention the après-ski importance of a robust cup of hot chocolate generously laden with marshmallows, and perhaps a candy cane?

We had Ooms Pond to ourselves last Saturday morning. Which one could have taken either as a benefit or a warning. If the skating was safe why were we so alone?

But we managed to avoid tragedy. I didn’t even hear a single seismic cracking sound of the sort that sends you scurrying towards shore.

The high points hardly included exercise at all. But instead stopping to have a conversation. And perhaps most of all achieving a view of the surrounding hills, which, at Ooms Pond conspire to form themselves into a graceful bowl.

In the end, perhaps that’s the best part of ice skating, its peculiar magic. You’re someplace you probably shouldn’t be. Enjoying a view you couldn’t in any other season. Basking in the benefits of a mysterious process where water, the most fluid of substances, transforms itself into something else entirely.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.