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It is one of those winters. Lots of early season snow, then weeks of really nasty Arctic air. A slight thaw, more cold.
Watching all the while is Kenneth Andersen of Eastford, who knows this is a good winter for what he calls "a wild skate."
On a recent Sunday, he and his wife, Suzanne, and friends met alongside a slow-moving section of a stream in Union surrounded by miles of marsh and forest. They laced up their ice skates and took off downstream.
"You can really penetrate this beautiful forest on the waterways when they're frozen," Andersen said, sprinting ahead of the group with long strides. "You could never, never get out here in the summer, except maybe in waders, and that's slow going."
The ice at the edge of the stream was crusty and sometimes snow-covered, but at the center, it was fresh, thick and clear as a martini. Every pebble on the bottom, every piece of vegetation was visible through 6 inches of ice. Even the carcasses of crayfish could be seen.
"Occasionally we see a muskrat swim by," he said. "And we've seen otters down here, frolicking on the ice. They'll spook right off if you skate up to them. But they'll let you watch them from a distance."
Nancy Pappas of Manchester, on her first wild skate, likened it to skating atop a terrarium.
The hillsides were thick with the green boughs of white pines, and in the marshy lowlands along the stream, the bright red berries of deciduous holly overhung the ice. The small group of adults and children frolicked in bright winter sweaters and jackets.
There were no other people anywhere in sight, the whole scene not unlike a Currier & Ives print. "I always fantasized about doing the Hans Brinker thing and skating on a river," Pappas said.
The frozen brook had little in common with the manicured ice of a rink or the crowded skating ponds maintained by local recreation departments. There was elbow room galore, though it was worthwhile to keep an eye open for protruding stumps, rocks and rutted ice.
"I love the peacefulness and the fact you can go along and just cut a path and look at the scenery, rather than going around and around," Suzanne Andersen said. "I guess they both have their features that are interesting, but I would prefer this for sure."
"I feel like Huck Finn out here," Ken Andersen said. "It's always an adventure."
A comparative handful of people seek out a frozen stretch of a small stream or an out-of-the-way pond to skate in privacy amid natural surroundings. But when conditions are right, they come out of the woodwork and into the woodlands and marshes.
Rain or a thaw followed by prolonged severe cold can make for ideal conditions for a wild skate.
"Last year, there were only two days this was frozen," Andersen said. "New Year's Day and the day after. And I was out on both of them." Because of snowstorms or thaws, even in the coldest winters there may be but a few days where the ice is deep enough and open enough to allow for decent skating - unless skaters are willing to clear the surface with shovels.
It is imperative to note that authorities frown on river skating in almost any form, for good reason. Most rivers, like the Connecticut, Housatonic, the Farmington or the Shetucket, are too unpredictable, even during the most severe and prolonged cold spells. Because of fluctuating water levels, ice can build in fragile shelves that collapse with the weight of a human. Moreover, moving water under river ice makes rescue far more difficult.
But here, in a brook coursing through a marsh, the water often only a foot or two deep, the dangers were minimized, if not entirely absent. The thinnest, newest ice was at least 4 inches thick, and usually much more. Days of deep cold weather are critical - a week earlier, parts of the brook were open water.
Andersen, a former commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture, is no daredevil, and he checked the ice repeatedly ahead of the group. Still, he has put his foot through the ice more than once on a wild skate, which should never be done alone.
"You've got to get your colors and fall in," he said. "Then you are indoctrinated into the wild skate." Not long ago, one skate shot through a weak piece of ice in the marsh, and he was knee deep in water and muck.
"I was having such a good time, I just skated it out," he said. But when it came time to leave, one leg and skate was so encrusted with ice, he went home with the skate still on, his son doing the driving.
Aware of this, Pappas advanced her tongue-in-cheek advice for a safe skate in the wild: "You make the heavier person go forward, and if he doesn't fall through, you know it is safe."
For more Connecticut winter recreation ideas, visit www.ctnow.com/winter.