Growing up in Chicago meant, amont other things, that outdoor ice-skating was easily available all winter long. The Park District used to flood the football field just across the street form our apartment, and the way-below-freezing temperatures did the rest. I spent almost every afternoon over there, alternately freezing outdoors and roasting indoors as I huddled up close to the potbellied stove in the wooden shelter.
I had good skates, too -- so good, in fact, that I'm still wearing the pair I got for my 16th birthday. My kids aren't so lucky, with outdoor skating days few and far between here: They get second-hand skates from thrift shops or hand-me-over skates from neighbors or borrowed skates from friends. One year the two middle daughters shared a pair, on the basis of "First I'll skate and you rest and then we'll switch in 10 minutes."
The lake a block from our house freezes very satisfactorily, but skating isn't allowed; so we often pile into the car and drive up to Lake Needwood in Rockville, where there's a smooth glassy patch of lake just right for skating. We also like to drive to a spot along the C&O Canal near Fletchers Boathouse, park and skate on the canal, zooming in and out among the trees. "Don't forget to turn around, Mom," one of the kids yells, because it's easy to forget and just keep on skating, a wonderful, free feeling, but the way back can be long and cold when you're tired.
Sometimes, someone builds a bonfire along the shore. Nothing feels as good as toasting numb hands and feet over a blazing fire. "If only there were little chairs, the ground is so cold for sitting," one of the kids complains, and my husband always asks "Why don't we ever remember to bring along a Thermos of hot soup or chocolate?"
Putting on skates and getting down to the ice are the hardest parts of the whole operation. We are split on the best procedure. Some of us put on skates in the car and carefully pick our way (or crawl) down to the ice, while the others get right up to the edge of the ice and sit on the ground to lace and tie skates. "You're going to lose your shoes," I always warn, "and if you do, you'll go home barefooted for all I care." But it's never happened. "Anyway," the potential shoe-loser always says, "I'm wearing three pairs of socks."
We all bundle up -- "The layered look, it's very fashionable," says my daughter as she puts on a ski sweater, a sweatshirt and a warm-up jacket and winds a scarf around the whole thing. "I'm warm on top," she moans, "but all I've got on my legs are blue jeans."
Other places for outdoor skating include the reflecting pool on the Mall and the new rink near the Hirshhorn Museum, but they tend to be crowded, especially on weekends. We prefer the canal or a close-by lake where there's plenty of room. Of course, if you fall, there are no friendly guards to pick you up and dust you off, you're on your own. There also is nothing much for a beginning skater to hold on to, except another skater. ("If you're going to fall do it alone," I used to tell my kids, "let go of my hand.")
The advantages though, are plenty. There is lots of room, the air is clear and it's completely free.