By Annette Hinkle
I’ll start by saying I’ve never been a great ice skater — but I’ve always been an enthusiastic one.
And let me further clarify that statement — when I say ice skating, I’m not talking about circling endlessly around a Zambonied rink with hundreds of others — even on a very romantic rink like the one at Rockefeller Center.
For me, ice skating has nothing to do with traversing (and tripping) on well-worn ruts carved by those who have passed this way several times before — rather it has and will always be about something more.
Real ice skating takes place on ponds and lakes (and on occasions, rivers and bays). In addition to the thrill of crossing a massive expanse of smooth, black, virgin ice on the coldest of days, real ice skating also involves exploration — being the first pioneer of the season to visit unnamed inlets, islands and tributaries that would never be navigable if you couldn’t walk on water. It’s kind of like a Robert Frost poem with some cautionary Poe thrown in on those occasions when one’s foot does break through the crispy bit at the edges which aren’t frozen through.
“Nevermore,” you say as you step onto dry land, shake the water off dripping skates and head home for a well-earned fireside beverage.
Yes, it’s dangerous. Yes, it’s ill-advised … and that’s the point. Pond ice is the proving grounds, if you will, the spot where you meet nature which may or may not support your efforts, literally speaking, in the end.
Blame it on global warming, our litigious society or the endless expansion of suburbia, but there just isn’t much opportunity to have that kind of interaction with nature anymore.
As ill-advised as it may seem to many parents today, humans have been ice skating for eons. In fact, early ice skates made of animal bone (where in the world would you get those sharpened?) were found near a lake in Switzerland by archeologists who dated them to around 3000 BC.
So someone back then thought it was a good idea — although it probably wasn’t a mother.
Locally speaking, ice skating is an East End tradition that goes perhaps not as far back, but back nonetheless.
“In Southampton Old Town Pond was always the place to skate, and it was nearby,” recalls Southampton author and historian Mary Cummings. “Guy Whitey taught us all to skate. He looked like Roy Rogers. He was kind, handsome and probably younger than I am now.”
While Old Town was the “go to” skating pond, Cummings adds, “When we could get a ride, we would go to Little Fresh Pond. They had bonfires there,”
They also had boys there, the hockey playing variety.
“Sometimes we’d get in a big line and play crack the whip,” she says. “Little Fresh Pond seemed more social. I remember going there at night — that was exciting. There were no lights. If you wanted to skate to the end, you’d hear big cracks.”
“Perhaps it was a way to be social with the opposite sex, at night, in the dark,” she confesses. “Let’s face it, it was so much freer then. Today parents would be worried stiff and wouldn’t let their kids do it.”
For the record, Cummings still skates, but these days it’s on Crooked Pond near Bridgehampton and of course, she laments, only on those rare occasions when it gets cold enough to freeze solid.
“I sound like such a geezer, but back then, we had ice every year,” she says.
Back in the old days, Sag Harbor’s Round Pond had ice every year — all year round. That’s because it was the site of an ice house in which blocks of winter ice cut from the pond were stored for use the rest of the year.
In 1882, when she was 17 years old, Sag Harbor’s Annie Cooper Boyd wrote in her diary about skating on Round Pond with her father and sister which they followed by tea.
Apparently in Boyd’s day, ice skating was very much about being social — and perhaps provided young women with one of the few casual opportunities they had to hang out with young men.
“There’s little reference to romance on skates,” says Jean Held of the Sag Harbor Historical Society. “It was more a case of the boys showing off rather than doing a waltz or something.”
Some things, it seems never change. And for her part, Boyd appears to have been quite the ice skater.
“What a jolly rollicking girl I was—ready for fun or any mischief. Skating—ice no thicker than a pane of glass—the thinner, the more fun,” she wrote at one point in her diary.
Boyd was also a fan of several skating spots in the Long Pond Greenbelt as evidenced in her diary entry of February 7 1885.
“This afternoon now I have been skating on Crooked Pond! Oh, oh, what fun! It is the most delightful pond anyway, the surroundings are lovely and it is all turns and inlets and outlets and little islands! Oh! I just love it! Went with a party of 12, and rode up in wagons, had a fire on one of the islands. Wednesday I went to Little Round, Thursday to Round, and Friday to Long!”
Though Boyd confessed to loving the “thin ice” as a young girl, years later she sent a letter to her own daughter, Nancy Boyd Willey expressing gratitude that she had taken up indoor roller skating instead.
“So glad you can go skating & so glad it’s in a building with music,” writes Boyd. “It lacks the wild thrill of a lovely woods miles from help if needed, which was always the fly in the ointment of my skating days — for it was my misfortune to live through the horrors of two fatal accidents on our lovely ponds & once I broke thru myself.”
Stuart Lowrie knows all about breaking through. He is one of those fortunate souls who, since 1996, has lived right by an excellent skating hole — Round Pond where Annie Cooper Boyd skated all those years ago.
“I wasn’t a big skater, but having it right behind the house made it hard to not get interested in it,” said Lowrie. “My housemate at the time played ice hockey as a kid. I got up bleary-eyed one morning and there he was racing around Round Pond swatting at a hockey puck all morning.”
“It looked like fun. So we got our skates and tried it ourselves.”
Lowrie compares the difference between pond skating and rink skating to the difference between running on a track versus running cross country.
“When there’s no snow, it’s unbelievably smooth,” he says. “You’re gliding along among the trees and the animals. You can look down and practically see the bottom of the pond, it’s so clear.”
“It’s something wonderful that’s completely free,” he adds. “The pond is 4.5 acres. You just strap on your skates and walk down to the pond and skate…..”
And if you’re very brave, he adds, you can skate clear across Round Pond, which is, incidentally, very deep at its center.
“The wonderful and terrifying thing is you always feel a certain amount of risk is involved,” says Lowrie. “When you’re the first to get on it and there are no skate marks, you don’t really know how safe it is. But you know you’re the first.”
“Gradually you extend away from shore in ever widening circles and then scoot across the middle,” he says.
“Then you hear those cracking noises.”
Of course, these are cautionary tales best shared, and Lowrie loves recalling incidents involving precocious children (including his own) who pay no heed to the adults who warn them to be careful.
“It is nature,” says Lowrie. “There are risks.”
At Round Pond, those risks lie along the north side of the pond which is exposed to intense sunlight all day long, even in winter. And for the record, there is always a rescue rope kept close at hand just in case.
“The northern rim of the pond tends to be soft and gooey or have no ice at all,” says Lowrie. “We always tell the kids to stay away from that side, which to them means, ‘Let’s go to the north side of the pond because the grownups don’t want us to.’”
Lowrie recalls a few years ago after being so warned, as the adults were skating around the pond, a group of kids edged toward the no go zone.
“Next thing we knew, three of them were up to their waist in the icy water,” says Lowrie. “Everyone was duly hauled off, pulled back into the house and dried off.”
Thin ice on the north side notwithstanding, Round Pond, it seems, is still the place to go to socialize on ice. In addition to nighttime hockey games illuminated by a neighbor’s flood light, for many years the Sag Harbor Fire Department would come out on very cold days with a pumper truck, spray water on the pond so it would freeze smooth and provide lighting for night time skating.
While it’s been many years since that has happened, there is a natural lighting source which is better still.
“There’s a special pleasure in night skating under a full moon when it’s cold and still,” says Lowrie. “If you’re lucky you’ll hear the family of screech owls around the pond. It’s just you and the crackling ice and your blades running across the surface.
Lowrie notes that last winter’s hard full moon freeze brought something entirely new and unexpected to Round Pond — ice fishing.
“A group of three Lithuanian immigrants were in town and they came over when the pond was frozen good and thick with all the necessary equipment to ice fish,” said Lowrie.
Lowrie and his gang had their fire pit set up for keeping warm and making hot chocolate. They watched as the men used augers to drill holes through the ice and dropped in the line from their fishing poles. Soon, they were pulling yellow perch from the holes in the ice.
“It was late January and for some reason all the yellow perch were pregnant females and full of roe,” said Lowrie who adds that when a friend asked if they could buy one, were told, “We’ll give you some. You guys have a fire…we’ll show you how to cook them.’”
So after Lowrie retrieved salt and aluminum foil from the house, the Lithuanian fisherman showed the Round Pond skaters how to cook yellow perch over an open fire.
“They were delicious,” said Lowrie. “We realized the roe cooked inside of them was also delicious.”
“It felt like we were in Siberia.”
If only everything else in life could be so easy … and so free.
Favorite East End Skating Holes
In Sag Harbor, you can’t beat Round Pond for accessibility. Middle Line Highway dead ends right into a bulkhead at the pond’s edge.
In North Haven, head over to the picturesque Ryder’s Pond on Sunset Beach Road. It’s a small skating area, but sheltered and lovely.
In East Hampton Village, try the old reliable Town Pond on Main Street with its backdrop of windmills, the old burying ground and the historic saltbox home. It’s all so idyllic, Currier and Ives probably would’ve been seen skating here in their day.
Hook Pond in East Hampton Village is a much larger alternative to Town Pond. Just over the dunes from the roaring Atlantic Ocean, it can be windy.
In East Hampton Town, a longtime favorite of hockey players is the “hole” on Two Holes of Water Road south of Swamp Road. Sheltered by towering white pines, it feels like upstate New York. But the water level is based on rainfall and has been disappointingly low in recent years.
Scoy Pond in Northwest Woods requires effort to reach, but the payoff is great.
Hike in from the Old Schoolhouse Plaque on Northwest Road or the dirt road leading left off Alewive Brook Road just past the right turn to Cedar Point Park.
In Southampton, Old Town Pond near Southampton Hospital is a village favorite and both Little and Big Fresh Ponds in North Sea are also worth the trip.
On the North Fork, Hummel’s Pond near Horton’s Point Lighthouse at the end of Lighthouse Lane in Southold is a local favorite for ice skaters and it’s right by the road.