On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, skaters with colorful parasails tacked hard into a steady southeast wind; skaters with long Nordic blades attached to ski boots whisked swiftly across the lake’s glass-smooth surface; while sleek ice boats with large sails picked up speed to rule the ice.
Crestfallen, I sat immobile in a plastic dish sled about a mile out on the lake, holding up a makeshift sail. “Apparently, there is not enough wind,” I mused, “or, my sail is not big enough.”
Old timers know that conditions like this don’t come around very often – when a lake freezes smooth and solid before wind ripples it into roughness, or it becomes covered with snow. So, on the last few days of the year, people converged on Eklutna Lake as if someone were offering free beer and pizza – which they weren’t.
But what recreationists found was even better: a crystalline clear-expanse of ice, an ice-rink on steroids that went on forever. Nature’s Zamboni machine had outdone itself.
About 20 years ago during similar conditions, I skated seven miles to the south end of the lake to try my own homespun version of wind skating. I attached a large plastic garbage bag between two ski poles and held on for dear life. With a steady 25-mph wind out of the south,
I gained a respectable speed. The problem was that after a mile my arms became bone-tired, and my legs started to wobble on patches of rough ice.
Chasing the wind
After hearing about Eklutna Lake’s fantastic ice conditions on the eve of New Year’s Eve, I drew upon my vast ice-sailing expertise and dug a plastic sled out of the storage shed. I made the sail a little larger and loaded the car for the following day.
I couldn’t sleep that night thinking about the next day’s hair-raising ride across Eklutna Lake.
On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, the wind was steady, but apparently not strong enough to break me loose. Noticing my dilemma, a couple skated by and generously offered to give me push start. Nothing. I turned to thank them, but they were already gone.
I hiked another quarter mile out on the lake, turned my back to the wind and tried again. Nothing. Inert, the opposite of motion. Walking back the car, I was undaunted. I was already hatching a plan for a new ice-sled prototype. This time I’d use a runner sled that would offer less surface resistance; a bigger sail and design a bit of comfort into my conveyance.
I worked on it feverishly that night. Time was of the essence since the forecast following New Year’s Day called for rain and/or snow. I elongated the ski poles to accommodate a larger plastic-garbage-bag sail. I attached a crossbar on the sled with small holes to receive each of the ski pole ends. I even attached a small backed chair to the end of the sled. All I needed was wind.
New Year’s Day
By early afternoon every spot in the parking lot was full. Everywhere there were skaters, kids, dogs, fat-tire bikes, baby carriages, Ferris wheels, rock bands (I exaggerate). Like me, people were acutely aware of how fleeting these conditions are, and were out in force.
I spotted a guy down at the edge of the lake seated next to an ice boat. He reminded me of a surfer scanning the horizon, waiting for that perfect set of waves. I hiked down the hill to talk with him.
“Dead calm today,” I stated the obvious. “Yesterday and the day before were pretty good, I guess.”
“Yeah, you don’t need too much wind with these to get a good ride,” he mentioned.
He explained that because of momentum and lack of surface resistance, ice boats go about five times faster than the measured wind speed.
“Sometimes it can get pretty scary,” he noted.
“I gave it a try yesterday. Guess my sail wasn’t big enough.”
“Yeah, I saw you out there.” He smiled and was nice enough not to laugh. I almost wished he had because I definitely needed a laugh.
“I have a new and improved ice sled in the car,” I said, trying not to appear braggadocio. “But doubt I’ll break it out. Just no wind.”
About that time, he was putting on his Nordic ice skates to join the throngs out on the ice. Weather was coming in from the south, and it was beginning to rain lightly, but no one seemed to notice. I hiked backed to the car, getting on Eklutna Road before the late afternoon rush.
Once home, I put my new, state-of-the-art ice-sailing sled in the storage shed. Next time, I’d be ready.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer and ECHO News team member who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired Birchwood ABC school teacher. To reach Frank, email: firstname.lastname@example.org