The ECHO News is not responsible for the outcome of any attempt of the “sports” in this article.
Dating back to my earliest years in Alaska in the 1950s, I believe I innovated a few novel outdoor sports, some of which were later modified and popularized by others. Unfortunately, I never developed or patented any of these sports, nor do I have proof of any kind that I invented them.
When I was a kid in Seward back in the 1950s, our streets sometimes turned into glare-ice skating rinks. When winds raged out of the north, we’d go out onto the street, raise our arms and let the wind blow us along – sometimes for considerable distances.
I suppose children across the world, especially in places like Holland, have been doing this throughout the ages. But after leaving Seward and living in places such as Kodiak, Fairbanks, Anchorage and Eagle River, I never saw kids doing this.
Ahkio sled surfing
The concave-shaped, canvas-lined ahkio sled made of fiberglass has Finnish origins, and has been used extensively by the U.S. military in northern regions for hauling equipment and supplies. In the early 1960s when my parents lived at Nancy Lake, near Willow, they used an ahkio for hauling supplies to their cabin, which was then inaccessible by road. In winter they used a snowmachine to reach their cabin.
The ahkio was great for sledding down the steep hill in front of the cabin. Not content to sit or lie in the sled the way normal people would, I developed a method of standing in the sled, which offered some hair-raising rides. The ahkio was not very maneuverable and when it came to spills, there were more ‘agony of defeats’ than ‘thrills of victory.’ But I believe this 1962 maneuver that I perfected, as clumsy as it was, was a forerunner to snowboarding.
Ice skate/ski, lake sailing
On a ski trip across frozen Eklutna Lake in the early 1980s, I spotted people at the south end taking advantage of 50 mile-per-hour winds with sleds attached to parachutes. The lake ice was smooth and snowless, and they were getting some terrific rides with stout winds coming out of the south.
Not to be outdone on this blustery day, I took a large (50-gallon) plastic garbage bag and attached it to my ski poles, creating a makeshift sail. Bravely, I stretched out my arms. Soon I was skimming across the lake at about 15 miles per hour (which felt like 50). Unfortunately, I had very little steering control and spills were frequent. Despite lack of control I was moving along quite well, but my arms became so tired they ached.
I once performed the garbage-bag sail maneuver wearing ice skates. Predictably, it was more difficult than with skis. The wipeouts were even more frequent, and painful.
I then hatched a plan for a much improved sail. The idea was to attach a four-foot-diameter, umbrella-shaped sail to my pack. This would free my arms to hold ski poles, which would increase stability and avert major crashes when hitting uneven patches of ice. I didn’t pursue the sail-attached-to-backpack adaptation, however, because suitable ice conditions on our lakes are extremely rare. Ice boaters wait years, sometimes up to a decade, for ideal conditions when lakes free solid without any snow on them.
Follow this link for an exciting YouTube video of ice-boating on Kenai Lake in one of those rare years, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOlYk0ZK_Y8
Canoe ice scootering, or “mushing”
Rather than ask “how” or “what,” the first line of inquiry when I tell people about this unique sport is “why?” Again at Nancy Lake and again in the early 1960s, we always took boats out of the water in October before the lake froze. We dragged them high on the shore and turned them over, where they would eventually become covered with snow.
One crisp morning, probably about November 1, I noticed that the lake was frozen solid and clear – not a speck of snow or frost on it’s glassy-smooth surface. I saw the canoe lying low on the shore. Apparently no one had yet pulled it up with the other boats. I easily skidded it onto the lake ice and was surprised when it just kept going! I went out to retrieve it and found that if I placed one knee on the seat inside the canoe, and hung one leg outside the boat, I could handily scoot across the lake— employing a kick style similar to that used by dog mushers. As I picked up speed over half a mile, I was quite pleased with myself.
Upon my return, my stepdad wasn’t nearly as impressed. Pointing to scratches and a couple of dents on the canoe’s hull, he explained in terse but clearly understandable terms that canoes were meant for water, not ice. He helped me pull the craft off the ice and up onto land amidst the trees, where the other boats rested.
I could have come up with a kneeling sled equipped with runners that would have been ideal for ice scootering. But again, our lakes hardly ever freeze solid without a layer of snow, a condition that completely messes up skating and scootering and the long-recognized sport, particularly in Minnesota: ice boating.
I make no claim on inventing glissading down snowy mountains. I figure the first guy who fell on his rear quickly learned that technique, which could almost be termed a “sport.” Over the years I’ve enjoyed long glissades that descended more than 3,000 feet over a couple of miles.
I used the nebulous term “think” at the back of my headline at the top of this piece because my lovely wife Rebekah says she is absolutely sure that as a young girl she invented “skipping” along the street. I really don’t think so.
Editor’s Note: Frank E. Baker is a member of The ECHO News and a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. Contact Frank via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org