A Beginner’s Guide to Wild Skating on Maine’s Frozen Lakes and Rivers

To head out on what skaters call “wild ice” requires some skill, some specialized gear, and some caution.

Harold Crosby wild skating on the frozen Orange River in Whiting, Maine
By Will Grunewald
Photos by Tara Rice
From our January 2024 issue

For many in Maine, the arrival of winter means lacing up skates for breezy spins around the local pond. Ideally, a thermos of hot chocolate is involved. For a relative few, cold, clear days are an opportunity for wider adventure: touring frozen backcountry on blades designed for covering long distances. To head out on what skaters call “wild ice” requires some skill, some specialized gear, and some caution, but for those who take up the frosty pastime, it tends to turn into a lifelong passion. Read on for our guide to the pleasures — and the practicalities — of gliding along Maine’s frozen lakes and rivers.

Weather or Not

Even during a good winter, pristine ice is a fleeting phenomenon.

The most important consideration about ice is, of course, safety. Personal risk tolerance will vary — 76-year-old wild skater Harold Crosby says a couple of inches will do for him, whereas his skating partner, Jacob van de Sande, likes at least three — but a widely accepted rule of thumb is a minimum of four-inch-thick ice, especially because thickness will vary across a surface. The longer and deeper a cold spell, the better. Being attuned to sights and sounds is also important: cloudy ice or ice with lots of bubbles tends not to be as strong; lots of crackling underfoot could be cause for concern.

Rivers are almost always more variable than ponds and lakes because of their underlying currents, but even on still water, it’s wise to be familiar with the surrounding terrain. The ice around inlets and outlets can be weakened by the flow of water, and the same goes for right along shore, where warmer groundwater can seep in. When in doubt, stay off.

But even among perfectly safe ice, the quality of the skating will vary from day to day and location to location. Generally, ice is at its smoothest early in the season. As the winter progresses, cycles of warming and cooling can turn the ice bumpy, and there’s no skating through a heavy accumulation of snow. “If you’re really into skating,” van de Sande says, “you have to be like, okay, I’m going today, because who knows what conditions will look like tomorrow.”

Nervous About Going Wild?

A crew from Portland's Athletic Facilities Dept. clear snow from the ice at Deering Oaks pond that will be ready for skaters,Thursday, January 3,2013.  (Photo by John Patriquin/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
Getty Images

Find somewhere to start mild.

If you’re new to exploring natural ice (and maybe a little leery of it), you might want to get your feet wet — only figuratively, of course — by checking out well-traveled ponds where the municipal government or a volunteer group maintains the ice. On Haley Pond, in Rangeley, a local skating club clears the ice, lights it at night, and keeps a warming hut nice and toasty. At Colby College’s Johnson Pond, in Waterville, staff monitors ice thickness and keeps the surface plowed when it’s safe for skating. In South Portland, the small pond at Mill Creek Park is lit up in the evenings. And on West Brook, in Biddeford, a nonprofit group operates a lodge for lacing up skates and grabbing snacks and hot chocolates. If you’re in Maine, there’s a good chance spots like these are never too far away. 

Gearing Up for a Skate

Everything you need to stay safe and have fun.

Nordic ski boots

Nordic Ski Boots

Modern skate blades are designed to clip on to cross-country boots (which is pretty convenient if you’re already a skier). For ankle support, boots designed for skate-style Nordic skiing are usually preferable to classic-style Nordic boots.

ice skating blades

Skates

Expect to drop at least $125 for a decent pair of Nordic blades, which offer greater stability and speed but less maneuverability than hockey or figure skates. (You can still always take hockey or figure skates out on wild ice instead, if that’s what you have on hand.)

ice skating helmet

Helmet

Whether skating at a rink or on a lake, helmets are smart. When skating on natural ice, a bright color has the added benefit of improving visibility if you’re in need of rescue.

ice screw

Rope and Ice Screw

To rescue a skating partner, anchor the ice screw, secure the rope to it, and toss the line. Or, if you’re skating without ice picks, an ice screw can also aid with pulling yourself out.

hatchet

Hatchet

One way to measure ice thickness at the start of a skate is to bust through with a hatchet and then lower a ruler or measuring tape (or an inch-ruled hatchet handle) into the water. Other options include using an ice chisel, ice auger, or cordless drill.

dry bag with hand and foot warmers

Dry Bag

A waterproof sack that slides inside your backpack is a good place to stash anything you want to carry with you, from snacks to cell phones to toe warmers.

ice piks

Ice Picks

In the unlikely event of falling through, jab the pointy ends of these grips into solid ice, then use that leverage to hoist yourself out.

Ice-Testing Pole

With a sturdy metal tip, this pole isn’t for propulsion or balance but rather for testing suspect-looking ice on the fly. Give a quick, hard jab, and if the pole punctures the ice, reverse course.

Down East Magazine, March 2024 cover

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