Skate Away

It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on

–  Joni Mitchell “River”


Is there anything better than skating on a wide open space – a river, a bay or a lake, unbounded by the artificial constraints of boards and the walls of an arena? It’s about the closest you can come to flying without leaving the ground. It is one of those precious joys, pure, simple, unfettered and untainted.

It is a quintessentially Canadian experience, but we’re happy to share it with anyone from a northern climate: folks from Minnesota or Scandinavia. Ask anyone about it, who grew up where the lakes and rivers freeze hard. Their eyes will get that far away look. There will be a moment of silence, followed by a smile and a sigh. They’ll say something like, “I remember this time…” And whether it was last week, or last year or fifty years ago; even though it’s corny, schmaltzy and populated with people you don’t know, that story will make you smile too and you’ll be glad you heard it.

Seeing the bottom 6 feet down, through clear ice.

Seeing the bottom 6 feet down, through clear ice.

Our lake froze over before the end of November this year. It’s usually frozen for Christmas, but this is the earliest anyone around here can remember for freeze up. It’s something I always look forward to, because, if the conditions are right, it’s the best skating of the year. If it’s cold and still the lake freezes like glass, with clear “black” ice. This year there was snow right after freeze up, but we had a thaw and some rain, that melted the snow. It refroze just perfect.

Always check the thickness of the ice. 4 inches or 10 cm is the minimum

Always check the thickness of the ice. 4 inches or 10 cm is the minimum


Yesterday I ventured out from shore with my cordless drill, sinking test holes into the slick surface. Four inches – perfect! I rushed back to shore, laced up my skates, called the dog, and skated away in perfect delight. It’s a little freaky gliding along the shore and seeing the bottom six feet below through the clear ice. Out deeper, where the ice truly is black, it’s like you’re suspended between heaven and earth, the space below you as empty as the sky above. Then there are the sounds the ice makes, sometimes like thunder, sometimes like whale songs echoing between the ice and the bottom.

My neighbour saw me and within minutes he had his skates on too. We grabbed a couple of hockey sticks and a puck. The decades slipped away and we were kids once again, spinning, passing, deking; imagining ourselves as our childhood heroes – Keon, Cournoyer, Orr and Howe.

In his book “The Game”, Ken Dryden says that this is the source of Canada’s hockey prowess – pond hockey. This is where genius and innovation are born, not in the set plays and structured drills of practice, but on the back yard rinks and frozen ponds where motion and imagination are set free. Ask Gretzky, Lemieux and Crosby and I guarantee they’ll agree. I bet the greats of figure skating would say the same.

I try to keep a rink going all winter. It’s a bit of challenge between the drifting snow and the pressure cracks that form as the ice thickens. Sometimes a midwinter thaw will smooth it all over and reset the lake to glassy perfection. Then when the wind is calm and the long shadows of bare branches reach out from shore, or even better under the magic of the full moon, you can glide away and fly through cold, crisp winter air.

There’s snow in the forecast later this week, but for the next few days I’m going to enjoy the simple pleasure of it all.


Safety Note: The minimum thickness of ice for skating or walking is 4 inches or 10 cm. If there’s large group of people you’ll need more. Clear or black ice is the strongest. White ice has tiny air bubbles trapped which weaken it. Beware of currents that can produce areas of thin or weak ice. If you’re in an unfamiliar area, ask the locals.


  1. Boy oh boy you nailed it. I was 8 or 9 skating on the North River in PEI. The closest I get now is Grenadier Pond, once every few years when it happens to be clear of snow for a day or two.

    • John Kenny says:

      It really is one of the last pure and FREE pleasures left. Come on up to Ottawa and skate on the canal. It’s a bit of crowd scene, but also great fun.

  2. John Cooke says:

    Well that brings back a lot of memories…well done; a beautiful l Canadian experience unlike no other !!!!

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