76-year-old Whiting resident Harold Crosby wearing his homespun skates made in 1961

76-Year-Old Harold Crosby Hopes You’ll Take a Skate on the Wild Side

For the lifelong Whiting resident, some things never change — not his Bean boots, not his skate blades, and certainly not his love of skimming up and down the ice on the Orange River.

By Will Grunewald
Photos by Tara Rice
From our January 2024 issue

When Harold Crosby was seven years old, his dad sharpened a couple of old machinist files into blades, embedded them in strips of wood, and attached leather laces so they could be tied onto winter boots. Those were Crosby’s first ice skates. His dad etched the year into one of them: 1954. From then on, Crosby spent every winter on the Orange River, which winds through his hometown, the rural down east hamlet of Whiting. “Skating was a community thing back then,” Crosby said recently, while chatting with his skating partner, Jacob van de Sande. “We had skating parties down at the landing after supper. Build a fire, and a group of people would come out.” Nowadays, he and van de Sande never see anyone else out on the river. “People have gotten scared of the ice, I think,” Crosby said. “Or at least they don’t know anything about it anymore.” 

Crosby’s affinity for the ice always held fast, though. And at age 76, he still uses homespun skates, a second pair his dad made, after he outgrew the first. “My new pair, I’ve got 1961 carved into those,” he noted. His footwear, too, is from the ’60s: two matching pairs of classic Bean hunting boots (one pair was his from the start, the other belonged to his dad, and both have been sent back to Bean’s for refurbishment over the years). It’s hardly conventional gear. Modern manufactured blades for the type of long-distance skating that Crosby does — a pastime variously known as wild skating, cross-country skating, Nordic skating, or tour skating — are designed to clip onto standard cross-country ski boots. For stability, Crosby has to layer socks until the Bean boots fit so snugly it’s nearly unbearable. 

River ice, on account of the water’s flow and eddies, is fickler than lake and pond ice. Crosby has learned all of the Orange River’s intricacies, not just from skating but also from many summers rowing in a flat-bottom skiff his dad made for him. In all his years of skating, he has never fallen through the ice on the Orange. Last winter, though, van de Sande, who’s  a couple of decades Crosby’s junior, did go through. The ice kept breaking as he tried to haul himself back up using a mountaineering ice ax he carries with him. “Suddenly, I thought to myself, ‘This could be a problem,’” van de Sande said. “I was starting to get tired and starting to get cold.” Finally, after several tries, he found ice that would hold him, and he managed to wriggle his way to safety.

“It’s definitely getting sketchier out there,” Crosby said. “Global warming — anybody who doubts that hasn’t been outdoors much lately.” Some days, to be safe, he takes his skates off and walks ashore to bypass one particularly iffy spot on the river, even though, as a kid, he remembers people being able to drive pick-up trucks out there. Warmer winters, Crosby suspects, have contributed to how few people he sees on the ice. “There’s not the same chance to skate,” he said. “The season used to start at the beginning of December or even in late November. Now, it might not get going until January, and it’s pretty well over by February.”

Eight or nine years ago, van de Sande, a fisheries biologist who works as a project manager at Maine Coast Heritage Trust, met Crosby, a retired dentist (who practiced in neighboring Lubec), while doing community outreach for a plan to restore fish passage on the Orange River. Van de Sande had gotten into exploring the outdoors on skates some 25 years earlier, as a student at College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor. He and Crosby hit it off and began skating together often. Compared even to Mount Desert Island’s mountain-framed ponds and lakes, the river felt special to van de Sande. “Ponds and lakes are great,” he said, “but there’s something about rivers and how you can go for miles without passing the same point twice. You’re just flowing so fast through this stunning, remote landscape in this really incomparable way. Even with bicycles, there are all those gears and technology. Skating feels elemental.”

Crosby has kept his blades honed all these years the same way his dad got them sharp to begin with, using a lathe jury-rigged with a whetstone. He takes it a little easier these days, especially when conditions get bumpy, but he has no intention of spending less time on the ice. “I can’t quite skate like I used to, but who can?” he said. He’s also working to pass along his passion for the frozen Orange River, by teaching his eight-year-old granddaughter to skate. “There isn’t any place better than that river, I don’t think,” Crosby said. “I mean, there are probably other places just as good, of course. But they’re not my river.”

Want to try skating on wild ice? Check out our Beginner’s Guide to Wild Skating on Maine’s Frozen Lakes and Rivers.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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