ponderable

We put on our skates in the house and clumped out and into the snow and slid a bit but mostly we stayed steady, moving forward, over the bridge with Kohos in hand and the pucks and shovels, and the axe, blazing our own trail as we struggled up the hill, just like Samuel Hearne, if he’d done his bushwhacking on Bauers.

You need at least three pucks if you’re playing on the pond, allowing for slapshots that the snow swallows and strays stolen by the dog. The Kohos and the shovels — well, obviously. If you don’t have an augur, an axe will do, and did, as we stood on the dock and chopped, gingerly — because you can’t be too careful swinging an axe while on you’re on skates — but also manfully, because is there any other way to swing an axe in the forest?

The pond doesn’t have a name. It’s fine without one. This is up north of Toronto, where this year the winter was for a long time slow to take. The pond used to be a farm field and before that I guess probably forest. Most of the trees closest by the pond are new-growth, pine-trees in straight rows, like puzzled fans who don’t know the game they’re watching well enough to comment. People used to skate here, years ago, but the ice has been lying fallow for — I don’t even know. Decades, maybe?

Two years ago I got a rink cleared at Christmas and kept it going through to March — easy. But last year I had slush problems followed by thaw trouble leading to deer traipsing around while the ice was soft and I wasn’t around and then what happened was the hoofprints froze like one of those learn-your-dance-steps diagrams, except three-dimensional and — I gave up. The tiny goal-nets I had out there stayed sunken and stuck until spring, when I lured them in on ropes.   

This year it’s been a long winter of waiting for a few good nights of freeze. We were away for Christmas and New Year’s. It was cold when we got back and the pond was iced over, though there wasn’t any snow. I went over with my Koho and tapped, tap and tap and — splash.

There’s something that’s distinctly unCanadian about a pond in wintertime that you can’t skate on because the winter’s too weak. The idea that hockey is our birthright, a gift given to us by the land we inhabit is one that’s enshrined in our … well, if not so very deeply in our literature, then certainly in our beer commercials.

It’s embarrassing when we can’t skate. It feels like a cruel insult. And even the weakness of the winter is province- and maybe even nation-wide, it’s hard not to take it personally.

This year it got to the point, eventually, when even the news from abroad seemed to be making mock of the situation. Europe wouldn’t shut up about the winter they were having, all their snow, the canals in Venice fast with ice, skaters in their hundreds out on England’s frozen Fens.

Then, earlier this month, there was the report that Russians drillers had broken through 2.4 miles of Antarctic ice to reach a lost lake called Vostok. Great news for science, I guess, this pristine body of water that’s the size of Lake Ontario where researchers hope to find primeval bacteria that could unlock all the secrets of the origins of life. Fine, good — but to those of us whose ponds haven’t been freezing, it was just one more slash to the soul. Although, I wonder — if they could somehow get that lake down there to freeze, just think: the world’s first subglacial hockey game is an exciting prospect.

I’d rather have open water than the partial ice we got in January. With no ice, I don’t have to worry, which is what I do if there’s any ice whatever, because I’m going to want to skate on it. There’s a fearful part of me that reminds me, every year, never the fuck go out on pond-ice, ever, whatever you do. I can’t map it precisely, but roughly speaking it’s an area extending down from my reason to my imagination, jumping over to my good judgment and across to my will to survive, encompassing both my better angels and my legs, as well my deep-seated respect for what members of the Ontario Provincial Police soberly say regarding winter ice, including their motto, No Ice is Safe Ice. It has a whiney voice, my fear, and it won’t shut up. It weakens my knees. When it gets to googling Ice Safety, it has a hard time keeping from clicking through every site that comes up, even though most of them that don’t address you as an idiot for thinking that your strong swimming skills are going to help you when you go under are generally disappointed by your lack of all-around ice knowledge and acceptance of obvious ice myths and folklore.

When In Doubt, Stay Off! That’s what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers counsels. I wish. In my doubt, I find myself reading the Ice Fishing sites, all the forums that tell me that blue ice is the good stuff, and the emergency kit I need to be carrying with me should include matches and a knife and rope and dry clothing. Which sounds smart.

The hole I axed last week showed five inches of ice, maybe six. On winter roads that the truckers truck in Nunavut, they like their ice to be four feet-solid, which is what I’d wish for, too, ideally, if I could get it. The Army Engineers say I only need two inches to skate on my own, which is encouraging until you check with the Canadian Red Cross, which doesn’t actually audibly hoot with disbelief and derision but close: try six, they say. The Yellowknife Fire Department agrees, and the OPP, too — though the Lifesaving Society in Alberta says four inches is fine. The Army Engineers believes that if you’re, sic, “one person on skies,” you can make do with an inch and three-quarters.

None of which helps with the anxiety.

So why bother at all? What’s keeping me from staying indoors? By “me,” of course, I mean “us” — it’s not just my problem. I may be anxious than most about the consequences of stepping onto winter’s ice, but the compulsion to do it is one I share nationally. All our lives, all our fathers’ lives, it’s what we’ve been brought up on: winter isn’t complete without hockey. And not only incomplete: imperfect. Maybe the land gave us the game, but we were the ones who shaped it, forging it into the stuff of our hopes and dreams, our pride, our … Tim Horton’s commercials.

As we know from Sidney Crosby telling us it’s so, the pond is where the game lives on in its pure natural form, not just because it’s where the game (supposedly) started but because it’s where we started. We look across the bridge to find our ancient young selves, when we were still free and innocent. More than the (alleged) link to the history of hockey, this is what consecrates the outdoor game and allows us to smudge it with sentimentality. It’s easily done, too. The freshness of the air, the gleamishness of the sunlight, the sparklihood of the snow. What could possibly ruin it? Other than the ice cracking beneath our skates, a terrifying plunge into the icy water below, the struggle that ensues, no chance as we fall to get to our rope or our dry clothing.

There’s another school of thinking on hockey’s relationship to Nature. It’s the one that says that the game we love is actually a war we’re waging on winter, showing who’s the boss, always has been, right from the start. Margaret Atwood has a whole book about this, Survival (1972). Don’t be fooled by the fact that the word “hockey” never comes into it: it’s as basic a hockey text as Dryden’s The Game or Lloyd Percival’s Hockey Handbook. “It is in their attitudes towards winter,” she says there, among other things, “that Canadians reveal most fully their stance towards Nature — winter for us is the ‘real’ season.”

Is it any surprise that winter fights back? If global-warming is Nature’s way of taking the fight to a whole nasty suicidal new level, thin ice on the pond is its trench warfare. If you read hockey’s books, all the old boy’s own novels, they’re filled with young strivers marching off to the rink where they inevitably fall through. No matter how careful you are, even when your dad warns you, or whether you’ve tested the ice with your axe or not, there’s a pretty fair chance in hockey’s novels that the net you’re about to shoot at is going to subside into the depths below with you not far behind. If you’ve read all the hockey books, or even some of them, you know it’s as good as a guarantee in hockey fiction: if you skate outdoors, you will be falling through and struggling to survive before your best pal saves you just in time. Sometimes, of course, it’s your nastiest rival who rescues you — that’s the other possibility.

It’s a struggle you never see in the beer or coffee commercials. Nor when the NHL ventures outdoors. The whole Winter Classic thing that the league has going is well and good, everybody loves it, with the possible exception of Sidney Crosby. Still, if the NHL truly wanted to embrace the whole experience of skating out in the open. If the league was really, truly committed to an authentic outdoor experience, they’d schedule a game not at the Big House in Michigan, but on Lake Simcoe — or maybe on the ice in the harbour at Kingston, Ontario.

It’s not that I want to see the ice crack under Pavel Datsyuk as he cuts past Dion Phaneuf. Watching Joffrey Lupul paddle for shore is not my idea, particularly, of entertainment. But if the NHL is going to throw so much of its marketing might into the ideal of outdoor hockey, why not take it the whole way? Player safety? In a league that still lets its players punch one another in the head, exposing them to natural ice can’t really be a concern, can it? They’ll be fine, anyway — just remember to remind Todd Bertuzzi to bring an augur and some rope and a change of clothes.

On the pond across the bridge, the snow was lying light as ashes last weekend. It pushed off easy as blowing with your breath. Pine-tree shadows reached out from the shore. Beyond was the silent forest. There was a bit of a wind blurring the air. Maybe there was a prettier sight somewhere in the world at that moment, but where?

The ice was a good eight inches thick and — gray? That was worrying. Maybe it was more blue than gray, though. It wasn’t black. Once we had it cleared I got up some speed, circling as fast as I could, as I sometimes do, on the assumption that if the ice does give out under me, I’ll be needing escape velocity to reach the dock. Although I also do sometimes slow right down, spread my weight, just in case that might be the safer approach. Neither of which really helps me focus on the hockey-playing I’m supposed to be doing.

We were only out for fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. Sarah went in and then Zac went, too.  I stayed on to show the dog some more stickhandling, which she followed with interest and frustration and much skidding all over the place with ears up. Is it boasting to say that among dogs, on ice, it turns out I’m something of a Max Bentley? One-on-one, at least — I can’t say how I’d fare against a pack of canine forecheckers.

Three pucks, as it turned out, wasn’t enough. The dog didn’t need to see one of my slapshots, I guess, let alone three of them, but I showed her anyway. All I’m saying is that she could have helped me search in the snow for lost pucks. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.