Skating in the Shipping Lanes
By Will Lent.
The winter of ’62 was the year Lake Michigan froze clear across,
from Manitowoc to Mackinaw, from Shelby to Sheboygan. October
20th saw the temperature hit –10F. By December 1st
we’d had twenty consecutive days below –15F. The old timers said
over and over that they’d never seen an early winter quite like
The ice pack built up quickly from the shore. Every day we looked
out over the great expanse of the lake and saw a little less open
water. At night, the prevailing west wind jammed huge flows up
onto the beach until there was a crazy landscape of twenty-foot-high
mountains of jagged ice. The ice pack seemed alive. It shifted,
groaned and creaked as temperatures fell and the huge ice plates
ground over and around each other.
Our small, inland lake was frozen solid three feet down before
Thanksgiving. Every afternoon we’d take our shovels and skates,
sticks and pucks down to the little lake. Our hockey nets were
frozen solid into the ice. We’d clear off whatever snow had fallen
and build up the border around our rink. We couldn’t believe our
luck. This would be the longest skating season anyone could remember.
The channel that connects the little lake to Lake Michigan rarely
freezes over and never very solidly. The currents ripping through
the narrow channel prevent the ice cover from taking hold. We
never skated too close to the mouth of the channel, knowing that
the ice would be soft and unreliable. This winter, the cold and
the thick ice cover on the little lake made us bold and we skated
closer and closer to the treacherous channel. One day a wild shot
off the crossbar of the net sent our puck skittering into the
danger zone. I sprinted after it without a second thought. I reached
the puck and made a quick stop. Snow sprayed up and my blades
gripped with the satisfying low growl that you only hear on the
hardest, most perfect ice. I was half way out of the channel and
knew I could keep going.
If you grow up on the lake you learn to respect its power and
unpredictability. In the summer, storms spring up in minutes,
turning a lazy, glassy lake into a snarling, purple and green
monster of twelve-foot breakers that snap small boats in two.
In the winter, Lake Michigan’s majesty and immensity grow. Out
at the edge of the ice pack, huge waves twenty feet high crash
and smash the growing mountains of ice. I had grown up on this
lake and knew never to fool with it.
One night late in January I was awoken by a loud crash. I bolted
upright in bed and listened as the ice pack rumbled and cracked.
I went to the window and scraped away the frost. The thermometer
read –22F and the wind was ripping through the trees. I figured
the gusts must be close to 40 miles per hour. The wind whistled
off the mountains of snow and ice on the lake. A huge, white moon
spread light across the snow covered dunes and the massive mounds
of ice. Straight out to the horizon, to the north point and south
to Little Point Sable, all I saw was a white desert of ice.
It was perfect night for a moonlight skate. I grabbed my worn-in
pair of Bauers from the closet. I quietly snuck down the stairs,
paying close attention to the steady breathing of my parents and
brother. Running out of the house, I tripped and my skates scattered
across the floor. My perfect night of skating was ruined! But
the regular pattern of breathing stayed in beat and I ran out
of the house for the little lake.
I laced up my skates and took my first step on to the ice. It
was the best ice ever. The wind died down and all that broke the
silence of the night was my blades digging into the hard ice.
I started to take laps all around the lake slowing down at the
channel to take a look at the frozen Lake Michigan.
I pushed off and took long strides toward the lighthouse that
marks the entrance to the big lake. I didn’t stop to think about
the danger I might be in. I dug my edges deep into the crystal
ice and fell into a strong, easy rhythm, striding due west toward
the middle of the lake.
The night was absolutely silent. Nothing existed beyond the narrow
path I skated on and the open ice that spread before me. I didn’t
tire. I didn’t feel the cold. I felt as though I could keep up
this pace forever. “Where does the ice end?” I thought to myself.
Suddenly, a ghostly gray hulk rose out of the dark before me.
A huge oil tanker, frozen in the grip of the lake ice, blocked
my progress toward the horizon. Where was I? Why was this huge
vessel caught in the ice? How far had I skated? I turned to look
behind me, expecting to see the beach and the lighthouse. There
was no shoreline, no comforting green light from the lighthouse.
I was consumed by an overwhelming realization. I was skating in
the shipping lanes in the middle of the great Lake Michigan.
I turned from the derelict tanker and saw that the full moon
laid down a path of light across the ice sheet. I pushed off and
began the long, slow skate, following the moonlight back to shore,
back to my warm bed.
A thin shaft of sunlight worked its way through the pine branches
and ended on my face. I opened my eyes, half expecting to see
ice flows and the moon. I closed my eyes again and an image of
a ghost ship floated by. I looked around my room and noticed my
skates in the doorway. The blades sat in a small puddle of water
and there were still a few crystals of snow and ice clinging to
the steel, about to melt away forever.