AFTER THE LAST fisherman’s funeral, I decided water around here is best when it’s frozen. As I help my youngest daughters into their ice skates, I hum the old carol “In the Bleak Midwinter”: “Earth stood hard as iron, / Water like a stone.” The afternoon is so perfect; it’s like a big exhalation, throwing off all that crummy winter-weather tension. The bowl that Chilkoot Lake sits in is protected by a rim of high mountains and tucked back into a valley. Although a north wind blows forty knots across Lynn Canal, icing boats in the harbor at the foot of Main Street, here on the lake it’s calm. Dark spruce trees and white mountains reflect on ice as hard and shiny as a marble floor. Chilkoot Lake is so big that, although I recognized the handful of Subarus and pickups parked on the road, their owners are out of sight. Looking across the ice, I can’t see a soul.
I learned to skate on an artificial rink on Long Island, the kind filled with organ music and people in rented skates all circling around and around in one direction. I still can do crossover turns only to the left. Skating at Chilkoot is as different from skating at a rink as swimming laps in a pool is from snorkeling in the tropical ocean. Instead of weaving in and out of other skaters, the girls and I quietly glide about a mile out, to where the rest of the family is already playing hockey. Chip and the three older children are crazy about the game. It’s only a matter of time before the two younger girls join them. The games are so fast and rough that it’s no place for cruisers like me. Every time I think about playing hockey, too, I’m reminded of the mother in A Prayer for Owen Meany. Instead of being killed by a Little Leaguer’s foul ball, I’m sure a stray hockey puck will catch me right in the temple.
A safe distance from the game, a group of children my girls’ age are learning to make figure eights. Leaving J.J. and Stoli there, I venture beyond the sounds of the game, beyond the voices and scraping of blades on ice. I am so far out I can’t even hear a dog bark. The ice is absolutely smooth and clear and the air so cold that my breath makes frost on my eyelashes, scarf, and on the edges of my wool hat. I skate with my arms wide open, singing out loud: “I could have danced all night . . .”
Near the middle on the western side, I can see open water and an orange buoy ball floating way out in the distance, marking the danger. The best skaters, the oldest and wisest, have assured everyone that the rest of the ice is thick enough to hold a dump truck. Now I wish there were a dump truck here so I could see for myself. In places, the ice does look new, similar to the thin layer that appears overnight on puddles in September. The kind of ice that breaks like glass when children stomp on it. I slow down but keep moving across the stillness, hearing nothing but the scritch of my blades and the occasional muffled thud of a pressure crack underfoot. That sound makes my heart beat faster. What if the ice won’t hold? Can I make it to the shallow end in time? I am about to turn around and go back when I see the tracks of a lone skater. Two graceful curves of white on the dark green ice, repeating in a simple pattern over the lake.
I catch up with Linnus and feel much better skating with a friend. We push and glide fast for fifty minutes in one direction, then slowly circle back to check on the children, Chip, and Linnus’s husband, Steve, who is also playing hockey. Everyone is happy, so we leave them again and zigzag silently along the shore, back to the landing, looking for wolves in the woods.
Heather Lende has contributed essays and commentary to NPR, the New York Times, and National Geographic Traveler, among other newspapers and magazines, and is a former contributing editor at Woman’s Day. She is a columnist for the Alaska Dispatch News. Her new book, Find the Good, is publishing April 2015.
This chapter comes from Lende’s first book, If You Lived Here I’d Know Your Name, which is about Haines, Alaska, and the people who live and die there, as seen from her role as an obituary writer for the local paper, The Chilkat Valley News (circulation 1000). Lende says, “Fire and Ice is funny, sad, and hopefully enlightening. Like all the stories in the book, it speaks for itself, and is both a window into one small Alaska town and the people who live (and die) there, as well as my own story of making a home in Alaska. This is one my favorites, so I hope you like it, too.” To read more of the excerpt, download a free copy of the Alaska Sampler 2015.
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