The sky was sliding toward periwinkle and the skate rentals had closed for the day, so there were few witnesses when my daughter pushed off onto the frozen lake. She had brought her own figure skates, and she stroked away decisively. In my boots atop a thin layer of snow, I watched her, as I’ve done so many times at skating lessons for five of her 14 years. Except on Lake Morey in Fairlee, Vt., in the January twilight, there was no wall to lean on, no high-powered spotlights, no pop songs pumping from speakers and no reason for her to have to turn around.
I couldn’t see my daughter’s face in the distance, but I tried to gauge her reaction to the lake’s organic expanse, so different from the gated, manufactured ovals she was used to skating on. She pivoted, played with footwork and whirled in a scratch spin. She finally whooshed to a stop where I stood. “I feel like I’m flying,” she said.
Maybe, I hoped, this crazy trip was worth it.
When my daughter shared her wish to skate on natural ice, Lake Morey Resort seemed an easy answer. Just off Interstate 91 along the New Hampshire border, it is known for maintaining one of the longest groomed and monitored skating loops in the country, about four miles following the lake’s perimeter. Although longer U.S. trails have been created by volunteer-run organizations during the pandemic, this one has a toasty hotel, as well as dining next to the lake. I wouldn’t have to spend any time outdoors in Vermont’s single-digit temperatures unless I was exercising.
And there were plenty of ways to do that. The resort offers so many kinds of gear that guests inspired by the Winter Olympics in Beijing can try several of the sports played in the Games. Figure skates, hockey skates and sticks, cross-country skis, and fluorescent-colored sleds that can be pulled on the lake or used as a pseudo luge at a sledding hill on the resort grounds are on offer. The Nordic skates, ideal for stability over the small bumps and natural fissures on wild surfaces, are like skis in the way the boot and long, wide blade are separate pieces that clip together. The blade only connects to the boot at the toe with a hinge, so when skaters lift their foot, the back of the blade releases and swings free. There are also snowshoes, ice scooters (to be used with provided crampons for traction), and a bicycle with one fat back tire and two yellow skis in lieu of the front one.
At home, my daughter spends hours at rinks indoors and out, but she prefers to skate in the elements once our local outdoor rink opens for the season. During that first pandemic winter, the routine and endorphin-generating vigor of skating at the outdoor rink were critical in lifting our family’s spirits, giving us purpose and a place to see friends. I wanted our late-January trip to be a supersize infusion of that joy, an emotion that was in short supply during months of anxiety and virtual school.
Lake Morey seemed to offer freedom from worry. All over the country, if winter is biting enough, ponds, rivers and lakes will freeze and become skateable for a time. But Mother Nature’s sheets are uneven and unpredictable. At the lake, the ice is evaluated daily and maintained by a fleet of plows and motorized brushes to streamline it and make skating possible.
The fleeting season when the trail is open for ice skating makes those days more magical. It usually opens by Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January and closes near the end of February, although it has opened as early as New Year’s Day. Like any outdoor venue, it is subject to the vicissitudes of nature: Earlier this month, the trail was temporarily closed to skaters after a pair of storms left slush and standing water on the lake. This year, the unusual weather patterns have meant the resort has been unable to open the four-mile perimeter trail, but it has opened a half-mile loop and cleared “rinks” on the southeast part of the lake next to the hotel.
When we looked out at the lake from our hotel room on our first morning at the resort, crews were already brushing snow from the ice, and skaters were moving on cleared stretches and on the shorter loop.
As much as I had loved having the 547-acre lake mostly to ourselves the evening before, I delighted in the morning energy. There were college-age hockey players ribbing each other, a small child living his best hygge life while nestled on a sheepskin on a sled towed by an adult skater, people propelling scooters made with two skis, dogs galloping alongside skaters, three generations of a family meeting friends, and preschoolers on an outdoor playdate. Practiced Nordic skaters zipped around the loop, bent forward with hands clasped behind their backs.
My daughter told me to look where I was going instead of down, but I was fascinated by the navy-gray lake’s texture. The ice was etched by blades and naturally occurring cracks; it looked to me as if we were skimming across pavement instead of a freshwater bowl averaging 24 feet deep. She briefly tested the Nordic skates, too, but quickly switched to experiment with hockey skates.
By the afternoon, as more clouds set in, I was starting to get the hang of the Nordic skates and had settled into a rhythm, lifting my feet off the ice and hearing the metallic thwunk as the skate blade extended. I was concentrating on sustaining my pace when my daughter pointed out a hot-air balloon sailing above the lake. The yellow-and-red color-blocked canopy, powered by hot air, seemed incongruous in the white winter landscape. “It’s going to land on the lake,” she predicted, and she was right. Next, two seaplanes — one red, one yellow — swooped over us, touching down with their skis on the lake’s northern tip, as skaters paused and pointed.
After a day of skating, we wanted to take advantage of all the gear at hand and try a sport we had never attempted. We chose the cross-country skis, and the woman outfitting us directed us to the lake. It was a Monday morning, and we were the only people on it.
On skis, we sought the thick stack of snow untouched by plows or human tracks and headed north, paralleling the shoreline and what seemed an early pass at plowing the longer perimeter trail.
Farther north on the lake than we had found passable with skates, I tried to internalize the views my dad must have seen when he trained here in the late-aughts for a long-distance Nordic skating race in Stockholm. His passion for skating had skipped a generation, to the granddaughter who was 2 when he died. A pond hockey player as a boy and a longtime outdoorsman, he pursued Nordic skating when the Vermonter who initiated the Lake Morey trail began raising the sport’s profile stateside. My dad and my daughter never skated together, and he never saw her camel spins and toe loops. But their shared yearning to skate in nature drew us here, and the landscape connected us to his experience, the same exhilaration of being able to flow across the stilled water.
Hills of hemlock and white pine sloping eastward toward Morey Mountain cast triangles of shade on our course with points far beyond us; the only way to eyeball our progress was to keep shuffling and skidding toward their tips when we would emerge into the sun.
When we did, the crystallized crust on the snow sparkled dizzyingly. I could hardly hear my panting over the crackle of skis and poles. We glimpsed ice fishers walking in the distance, but otherwise, we were alone with the brilliant cover above, the pristine, glittering frost below.
If You Go
Lake Morey Resort
82 Clubhouse Rd., Fairlee, Vt.
This lakeside resort in the Vermont Hills above the Connecticut River has maintained the skating loop on Lake Morey since 2011, taking over efforts started by volunteers in 2000. Ice conditions are updated on Facebook, Instagram and a phone line. Access to the lake is free to all; rentals of figure and hockey skates, cross-country skis, snowshoes and sleds are free for hotel guests. Hotel guests can rent Nordic skates free for two hours. For day visitors, figure and hockey skates rentals $17; Nordic skates, $30; helmets, $10; hockey sticks, $5; and kid skate trainers, $10. Kickspark scooters, $40 for a full day and $30 after 1 p.m. Classic room, two double beds with garden or golf-course view, from $179 per night. Hotel restaurant is open 5:30 to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. Clubhouse Bar & Restaurant is open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.