Two weeks ago, we drove our sons to their ride back to the city, and from there, to flights back to their homes. We'd had a week of quality family time, replete with constant board games, card games and basketball games to watch on the television. We'd eaten well, had a small and cheerful holiday and rarely left the house, in part, due to a true snowstorm that my two sons hadn't seen in years of living in milder climates.
The day they arrived, Lake Colby had not yet frozen over. Even with the snow surrounding the perimeter, the sound of small waves hitting the shore was still audible, still reassuring. Open water always feels more alive to me than the frozen stillness that ice brings. Mist rises; stones sink; fish jump; boats float; whitecaps rise and curl. Once the ice comes, huge palettes of white quietly hold the ponds and lakes in place until spring.
I told my "boys" they'd be here to witness Colby going silent and they were. They asked if we'd heard of any cars, trucks or snowmobiles going through the ice in the past few years, and we nodded. It is a part of our culture here in the northern mountains, not necessarily going through the ice, but always knowing there are those who wait to go out onto the ice once it covers any given lake, any given year.
A while back
I remember the first time I went out on a frozen lake, a little after I'd arrived here in 1972. I'd come to Saranac Lake as a young bride, and I'd set about learning what it takes to live here year-round. I'd purchased my first pair of Sorels, got long johns and wool socks and walked around town learning what was where and who was who. I also got a pair of wooden cross country skis, just in case.
I was a good enough swimmer and loved being in the Adirondacks in swimming weather. I'd also learned to downhill ski as a teenager, but hated falling, so had mostly given it up. Winter didn't invite me outdoors. But a new friend introduced me to cross country skiing, and I loved it. One of my first long excursions was out in the Saranac Inn area. And the experienced friend who accompanied me led the way, ensuring I didn't tire or get somewhere I couldn't get out of. We approached a pristine pond, empty of signs of life, and unmarked by tracks of skis or snowshoes or snowmobiles. It was a true empty page I believed I was there to admire.
Taking the first step
He then slid onto the pond's surface, and skied away. I was like an animal wary of a new thing in her environment. I looked around for signs-were there warnings? Was my friend a wild man leading me to my cold, wet end? I was naive, of course, and worried. Did I have to follow him? Did I want to?
He called out to me, said it was fantastic, said, "Follow my tracks," so I did. I behaved as though I'd done this a dozen times. I was afraid for uncertain reasons, but wanted to earn my "resident" stripes as much as any scout.
Slide, slide, glide. The crisp sounds of skis scraping over cold snow feels empowering. By the time I'd reached the center of the pond, I was captivated. The sky was huge and blue overhead. Mountain views from the center of this isolated piece of heaven were fantastic. The shore was a long way off. I felt as small as a little bug on a big white background. The ice groaned a few times, and I looked at my friend to see if he panicked or worried, which he did not. He told me about the sounds of ice, the depth of most ice in midwinter, and what to look for in case I was ever out on the ice by myself. I laughed at the thought. But I also listened carefully.
The peacefulness of being on a quiet pond or lake in the winter is a true Adirondack gift. Snowshoes and skis spread out our weight, and we can move over places we only float upon during the rest of the year. We walk on water, and it feels good. We go forth bravely when we go.
Others go their own way
A big part of Adirondack culture includes ice fishing and snowmobile riding, both of which also take place on the ice of quiet mountain ponds and lakes. I am not a fisherman or snowsledder. I do not have fond memories of making holes in the thick ice to catch fish, or riding across the ice on my snowmobile. But I do appreciate those who do.
My philosophy is this: True Adirondackers do not hide from winter. They may not like being cold, but they know how to navigate our cold dark months. They have learned how to dress, how to drive, and how to come in when it's too intense out there for human life. I admire the ice fishermen, their little houses erected over their fishing holes, their hunting-camp rituals of family, friendship and food for the family table bonding them every winter. I recognize the rosy cheeks of the skiers and snowmobilers who have just come in from the cold, and I am proud to be a part of their world.
It also must be said, for those who have not been here so long, or for those who have a bit of the foolhardy in them, ALL ice is dangerous here in the Adirondacks. All ice can misbehave and render us statistics in winter accidents. Do not rely on the old family saying, "We've always gone out on _______," when recent weather may tell you to beware. A recent warm spell or day of rain changes everything. Watch out every time you go. Keep an eye out for younger folks who may not know about wet patches, moving water under the ice, or just plain thin ice. Do not become one of the annual statistics of sunken cars and snowmobiles my sons asked about as the ice came in the third week of December.
But do give a walk on a pond a go if you can. It's heavenly. Cold and crisp, yes. But being out on the ice on a glorious winter day is a slice of exhilarating Adirondack living, and it's beautiful to boot.
Randy Lewis lives in Paul Smiths, and is the author of "Actively Adirondack: Reflections of Mountain Life in the 21st Century," Adirondack Center for Writing's People's Choice Award for Best Book 2007.