By Jenny Neyman
As Pete Seeger and Ecclesiastes posit, to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.
An early winter like this, bereft so far of snow but with temperatures dipping below freezing and clear days beckoning people outdoors for some sort of recreation, is time to turn, turn, turn.
Laps, that is, around area lakes that have frozen over in a deepening crust. It’s ice skating season.
“This is something to look forward to, absolutely,” said Sue Seggerman, of Sterling, who was out skating on Bottenintnin Lake on Skilak Lake Loop Road with a group of friends Saturday. “And you’ve got to do it while you can. As soon as we get snow it’ll be all over.
“Some years you don’t get to go at all,” said Gail Moore, of Soldotna.
Conditions have to be just right for decent skating. A safely frozen lake is the first and foremost requirement, with ice at least 4 to 6 thick.
Tom Seggerman, of Sterling, started checking ice thickness two weeks ago in anticipation of taking his skates out of hibernation.
“If it’s clear ice you can look at the fractures and see how deep they are, but when it first freezes you don’t have those, so you want to punch a few holes to check. I came out here two weeks this Tuesday to get a sample and said Bottenintnin is good, let’s have a party Halloween night, and we did,” Seggerman said.
Smaller, shallower lakes freeze first. Bottenintnin is a quick freezer. Headquarters Lake, in Soldotna, is another early season favorite.
“It’s awesome out here,” said Tony Eskelin, of Soldotna, armed with a hockey stick and puck Saturday. “I go at lunch to Headquarters. You get out there with the sun, it’s amazing.”
“Talking to skaters, they’ve been raving about it, and if it keeps cool the ice should get thicker. We haven’t augered it so don’t know how thick it is. We always tell everyone to skate at their own risk,” said Candace Ward, with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Headquarters Lake is down the hill behind the refuge visitors center on Ski Hill Road. “It’s not every year people can skate it. It depends on the temperatures and how early snow comes. And the numbers that come to skate are still smallish compared to the number of skiers we’ll see when the first snow comes. It’s the time to go, though, if you want to skate outdoors, as opposed to being indoors on a frozen rink.”
Longmere Lake, in Sterling, Johnson Lake, in Kasilof, ARC Lake, in Soldotna, and Hidden Lake, along Skilak Loop Road, also are popular skating spots. It gets trickier with bigger, deeper lakes, which take longer to freeze and can have more areas of thin ice, especially around stream outlets. Skilak Lake is a slow freezer, for instance, and can be fine in some spots, and thin in others. Last winter, for instance, a pressure ridge formed on the surface, with a seam of jagged ice jutting up out of the lake. Some areas of the ridge were frozen solid, a fused eruption of crystalline shapes glinting in the sun. Other spots were sketchy enough to leave skaters’ nerves as jagged as the ice.
Eskelin skated on Skilak last year and crossed the ridge after watching another skater in the distance do so.
“I crossed it and it seemed fine. Then I looked and saw a little iceberg fall off, and it splashed in water and sunk. I was like, ‘Oh, man, that’s open water right there?’ So on the way back I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to follow my tracks.’ I wasn’t anticipating open water like 15 feet away from me,” he said. “Furthermore, I was on that lake on a boat in January, and a month later I was ice skating on it. It froze and thawed like two or three times last year.”
“When Skilak freezes and you feel comfortable out there, oh my God it’s beautiful. But we need someone out there like a 24-hour job just monitoring the ice,” Moore said.
Or take Jim Bennett’s strategy for knowing when to go skate:
“Friends,” he said, having come out to Bottenintnin after hearing Seggerman’s report. Not that he doesn’t take precautions himself, especially after having helped rescue a man who fell through the ice on Lower Russian Lake near the outlet of Russian River about 15 years ago.
Bennett, of Soldotna, said he keeps an eye on the consistency of the ice.
“I watch for bubbles. Three inches and clear is better than 3 inches and a ton of bubbles,” he said.
He also was wearing a borrowed pair of ice claws strung around his neck. They’re basically sheathed ice picks on strings. The picks can be jabbed into the ice to give wearers a way to pull themselves out of the water should they fall through the ice.
Most of the skaters Saturday were further safety conscious by wearing helmets, and had stories of skull-thunking falls to substantiate the importance of head protection.
“Actually, I was wishing I had on arm pads, too,” Sue Seggerman said. She’d taken a spill and had tweaked her wrist.
The ice was nice in offering a seasonal alternative to the biking, hiking, paddling and running people had been doing all summer and fall, and now were tiring of in anticipation of snow sports. There were no real complaints for a Saturday afternoon spent outside with the sun peeking through broken clouds. But conditions could have been better.
“It’s weird ice today. There’s a little water on top — it must have rained last night. So you’re going along and all of a sudden you break through it just a quarter inch, then you’re kind of running trying not to fall,” Tom Seggerman said. “We haven’t had perfect ice yet this year. Some years it’s so clear it’s just like glass. This year it’s all had some bumps, but there are spots that are really good.
“We used to call it potato chip ice, because you’ll be skating along and all of a sudden you feel like you’re skating over potato chips,” Moore said.
“If it freezes hard tonight it’ll be pretty good. Tomorrow’s the day, I think,” Seggerman said, ever optimistic, as he’d previously declared Saturday to be the day.
Sunday wasn’t, either, for that matter. Temperatures warmed even more, and continued up into the 50s on Monday. Until there’s snow, though, skating is still a possibility, just needing cool-enough temperatures to continue the freezing process, and cool-enough heads to wait until conditions improve.
“Sometimes you get a warm-up spell and it rains and if you don’t have snow it’ll flood itself and freeze again and be good. That’s what we’re hoping for now,” Seggerman said.
Suzie Kendrick, of Soldotna, affirmed with a chilling jolt the importance of waiting for safe ice.
She headed out Nov. 1 for a skate on Lake Hope off Tote Road, about a 10-acre lake on which she’s lived for the last 29 years.
“I had seen people out on my lake. Of course everybody stuck really close to shore, and of course that was my game plan. I just really wanted to get out,” she said. “My husband’s not here right now so I didn’t have him in the background going, ‘Never go skating until after Thanksgiving!’”
She still heard him in her head, but the desire to get outside won out against his standing advice. She could see bubbles, leaves and other detritus frozen into the ice 4 to 6 inches down, and proceeded with caution, staying within a foot and a half of shore.
About halfway around she passed a small stream outlet leading to a smaller lake, separated by a thin peninsula.
“There’s trees along the bank and I’m kind of ducking under branches. And then, all of a sudden there’s that oh-my-God moment, ‘Crack, crack, crack.’ I knew immediately what was going to happen,” she said.
As she broke through she grabbed a tree branch and managed to stop herself from a full immersion, only going in chest deep. She pulled herself out of the water and rolled up on shore, took off her wet skates and hurried to her neighbor’s house 50 yards away, who gave her dry clothes and hot coffee further warmed with a nip of brandy.
“It was more like a stroll and a walk and a boom and a ‘ka-boosh,’ as opposed to ‘I almost died,’” she said.
Being a SCUBA diver and having fished commercially for 25 years, Kendrick is no stranger to the water.
“I’ve been around boats and water enough times that I don’t panic. I can see that if somebody did panic, and if you were somewhere where you were unable to catch yourself, it could have been really scary. There’s something about when your head gets wet and you’re under the water that makes it a whole different experience,” she said. “If I had been an idiot — well, I guess I was an idiot, but if I had been a really big idiot and taken off anywhere in the center of the lake, I could have died.”
A point about which her husband reminded her when he heard what happened.
“‘I can’t believe you did that, you know better than to go before Thanksgiving,’ he said. That’s his personal, I-was-born-in-Alaska rule,” Kendrick said.
She’ll follow it now, especially since she’s off to Hawaii this week. If there’s still no snow when she returns, perhaps she’ll don her skates again, making extra sure the ice is safe.
“Or I’ll go to the (Soldotna Regional Sports Complex),” she said. “I’ve never fallen through the ice at the sports center.
“It’s certainly nothing I’m proud of, but if anybody can learn anything from my experience, it’s if you’re going to go out there, make sure you’re an arm’s length from shore. And I was by myself, that’s generally not a good idea, either,” she said. “That really is the take-home — when you think it won’t ever happen to you, it can. I should know better because things do happen. That close-call feeling, it’s kind of like shaking you back to reality to how precious life is and to not take things for granted. It was a big old piece of humble pie, for sure.”
Luckily, she’s digesting it from the safe and comfortable vantage of hindsight.
“Warmed-up humble pie,” she said.
Know before uh-oh…
Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, with the University of Manitoba, known as “Professor Popsicle,” has done extensive research into the effects of cold water immersion on the body, and strategies for surviving a fall through the ice. See his recommendations and watch video demonstrations at: