A River to Skate Away on

I wish I had a river so long 
I would teach my feet to fly
I wish I had a river

I could skate away on 

–          Joni Mitchell.

The seemingly ever-changing Sangamon River flowing alongside my property grows, shrinks, shifts, and changes moods like a living being.  Even during the winter, the Sangamon changes with the weather; sometimes flowing, sometimes clear as crystal, sometimes frozen like a stone.

So unlike Joni Mitchell, I have a river that I could potentially skate away on, at least at certain times. So when I moved here, and the water became like a stone, I began to wonder: should I?

Growing up in Florida, I went ice skating a few times at the Jacksonville Coliseum with our Boy Scout troop when they’d ice over the floor. But otherwise, it’s safe to say that ice skating wasn’t necessarily a big part of my youth.

My wife Carol, being from that “Northern” city of Atlanta, was way more into ice skating than I, taking figure skating lessons and learning her crossovers, Mohawks, 3-turns and spins. It was amazing just to watch her fluid movements on ice on the (rare) occasions of our ice skating dates (and it still is). I on the other hand could barely keep up with the 7 year-olds.

After coming to work at the U of I, I took figure skating lessons at the U of I ice arena, and I eventually (sort of) learned the basic moves, too. But I’m still routinely shamed by 7 year-olds.

Anyway, after moving here along the Sangamon and with visions of outdoor skaters holding hands all bundled up in their scarves and mittens at Rockefeller Center. I thought about the romance of outdoor ice skating right here in my own backyard.

As it turned out, our first winter here, the river rose over its banks and flooded our lowland area. Then the temperature dipped below freezing for a few days and the river froze solid. Then after receding, it conveniently left a nice thick patch of ice lying right on the ground.

And we went skating. And even as the ice cracked in areas where it was a bit thin, no worries! No water underneath. And I had my Rockefeller Center dream!

In bygone days, recalled by Village long-timers, Lake of the Woods had outdoor ice skating, but not on the Lake or on the river. They apparently flooded the lowland just north of the river and east of the covered bridge and had a nice (and presumably quite safe) ice skating area. But just like the Lake’s super slide also frequently lovingly recalled by long-timers, such pleasures are gone forever, having long since been replaced by modern liability laws.

But our little backyard skating arena didn’t last long, and so we moved on to contemplating our river.  After another long freeze, the river seemed completely frozen over, but I, knowing little of ice on rivers, was pretty skeptical.

So we stood on the shore and hurled bricks, rocks, and concrete blocks onto the ice only to watch them skid and bounce off, barely making a scratch. Next was the lab test. We attached our lab Josh’s leash and sent him out on the ice. And all was good with Josh.

So we stepped out, tentatively at first, then we walked, then marched, then stomped, then jumped up and down, verifying that it was in fact, stone.

So we swept off the snow and made ourselves a skating rink. It was very nice, but in a few days, the weather warmed slightly and a layer of water started seeping over the ice. Still, the ice remained solid, and the skates glided right through it like it wasn’t there. But with a half inch of water on the surface, you didn’t want to fall down much (which I did).

I’ve since learned that 2 inches of ice can support a person, 7 inches could support a Hummer.  The biggest problem with ice on the Sangamon is that, because of the eddies and flows of various currents, ice can be several inches thick in one spot while liquid water flows at the surface just a few feet away. To a Florida boy, that’s more than a little freaky.

At one point, during an ice-hurling thickness test, a log we hurled onto the river skidded across the thick ice and into the flowing water out at mid-river. And before we knew it, Josh bounded out on the ice after his ‘stick’ and leaped happily into the water (as he usually does with sticks). But of course, then he couldn’t get out.

Horrified, we laid out on the ice like we’d seen on TV and grabbed Josh by the collar and dragged him out before he went under the downstream ice sheet. And for the record, he’d want you to know that he recovered the log.

Nowadays, our younger daughter Abbey is our figure skater, taking lessons at the U of I ice arena. And she’s progressed much further than her Mom, currently working on something called an “axel” that I’d only heard about on the Winter Olympics.

So Abbey set up a little figure skating area out on the river one year, and I set up my bleachers-for-one on the ice in our metal lawn chair to watch the performance. She did great!

The next day, water seeped onto the surface of the ice then froze overnight. When I went back to recover my chair, it had frozen solid to the river’s surface.  So my metal chair stayed out there all winter, ultimately sinking to the bottom in the spring thaw. I didn’t recover it til late the next summer when the river went down.

This past week, Abbey and I took a river hike, heading upriver in our snow boots.  She apparently can no longer risk damage to her expensive figure skates by skating on something as bourgeois as the Sangamon River.

We went almost a mile upriver, by river, walking on water the whole way, a unique experience for a Florida boy like me. We photographed patterns in the ice, the shadows of the trees on the icy river and the places where the liquid water was still flowing through the frozen river.

As I write this, I realize that some modern liability law probably dictates that I should recommend against ice skating or hiking on the frozen Sangamon.  But modern liability laws would also probably dictate that you remove the stairway to the second floor of your house.

Regardless, I would advise that everyone should always be very careful and ever mindful of the risks around something as moody and ever changing and therefore as dangerous as the Sangamon River any time of year no matter what you’re doing in, on or around it.

Meantime, as for a Florida boy like me with visions of the Rockefeller Center and a river like a stone in my backyard, I’ll skate away on my river whenever I can.

Appeared as “Notes from the River” Mahomet Citizen, January 9, 2014, by Scott Hays

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