Frida, my local Swedish friend, pulled her car to a stop in front of a frozen lake outside of Östersund, Sweden. It was 2 pm, and the winter sun was already beginning to set. The ice flashed purple and cotton candy pink. Frida persuaded me to fly halfway around the world for the moment before me, but my courage waned. I gulped as Frida sprung from the car.
“Have you ever fallen in?” I said.
“Twice,” she grinned, her blonde hair poking out from under her ski cap. “The risk is what makes it fun. Get your snow pants on. Your ice skates are in the trunk.”
We waddled in our snow gear to the clear ice. I played back every movie in my head where ice skating was ever featured, which I could group into two categories: “death” and “awkward first dates.” Frida snorted as she surveyed the situation when we got to the edge of the water. Half of the lake was still unfrozen. I glanced back at the car.
“Well try it,” she said. She flung her bag of equipment on the shore.
Ice skating is not new to Sweden. It was invented by the Dutch in the 13th century, and it has been a commonplace Swedish sport for centuries. The Uppsala-Stockholm region has an ideal climate for skating which offers a variety of different ice types. But within the past few years the younger generation in Sweden have swept in and taken the sport to a whole new level by upping the risk. The goal is to find the clearest ice before the snow finds it first.
I watched Frida clamp two blades onto her boots to form her långfärdsskridskor, special Swedish skates.
“Wait here. I’ll check it out.” She took tentative steps on the ice, stabbing the thin layer with an ispik stick to gauge depth. It shattered the surface with a single thrust. Frida cursed.
“Maybe another place?”
Frida paused. She took a long deep breath and skated back.
The next morning Frida checked a community Facebook group dedicated to långfärdsskridskor where locals report the ice conditions to eager skaters. In Sweden there are more than 97,500 lakes, each freezing at different times, which ups the thrill of the hunt from November to as late as March in some areas. “We have one more chance before you go. You can’t leave Sweden before you experience it,” she said. We settled on a place thirty minutes out of Östersund where someone had reported the ice was thicker.
We stood on the shore. A Finnish fisherman sitting in a camping chair waved at us as he pulled a squirming fish from the water and placed it on the ice with four others. The fish flopped around hopelessly. My heart pounded in my rib cage. Frida helped me fasten the blade of my skate onto the bottom of my boot. I watched my breath swirl like smoke in the air. She placed a hand on her hip and surveyed me.
“You’re ready! Time for a safety demonstration.”
“This is your isdubbar,” she said as she pointed to a red device hanging around her neck. “It is uh, what is the word?” She pulled the contraption apart to reveal daggers. “Ice claws. You use it if you fall in and need to climb out.”
“These are your ispik. They are like ski poles except it sinks into the ice. Poke the ice in front of you before you skate.” She looked up with a taunting smile. “They will also help you keep your balance.”
Frida shouldered her buoyant backpack and pointed. “Inside here is an extra pair of clothes and plastic bags. If you fall in, you have to change your clothes immediately. You only have one pair of boots to skate back, so place your feet in the plastic bags before putting them in the boots again, since they would be wet.”
“I have a rescue line, or a räddningslina. This is why it is important to ice skate in pairs. You ready?”
“I think so.”
She took off before I responded. The fisherman gave me a thumbs up and I inched onto the ice. I wobbled around and used the ispik to guide me. Frida weaved in perfect figure eights.
I watched and practiced my strides until I too was gliding. I stopped starting at my feet. I laughed and smiled and remembered this was exactly why I’d come halfway around the world. The ice beneath me responded to my weight with a melodic song, like someone had hit an ethereal gong. The thrill was palpable. The earth was singing like an exotic bird. The purple blue sky reflected along the crystal glass surface. It was the closest I had ever felt to flying.
After a mile Frida slid to a halt in front of me. “Look.” She pointed to the bottom of the lake. “You can see every fallen log, tree, and rock. Sometimes we chase fish.”
My mouth fell open. I fumbled for my camera and took pictures as Frida soared around me, recounting hundreds of other times when the ice was better.
“Stay still, I want to take your picture,” I said. Frida inched forward. The ice cracked. A line like lightening raced through like surface. The harsh sound ripped through the landscape. I stumbled backwards.
“Time to move back,” Frida said, eyes wide. “We found our limit. Don’t skate close to me until we reach that tree line ahead.”
I panted as we passed the point of safety. My smile was still firmly intact. I was somewhat surprised to discover Frida had inhibitions, but I was so happy I had stood at the edge of my own limits and challenged them.