1. The whole of Holland is crazy about skating. You could be forgiven for thinking that every citizen of the Netherlands who wasn’t on life support or lying flat in the morgue was out on the ice this past weekend. Tens of thousands of people, streaming by at the rate of dozens a minute, in pairs, groups or, like me, all by themselves.
Who can blame them?
The last time they had ice in Holland like this was a dozen years ago when it was so cold for so long, they even opened up the Elfstedentocht, a 200-km tour through lakes and canals linking 11 cities, first undertaken exactly 100 years ago by a man who just wanted to see if he could do it. The last time it was run in 1997 the winner completed the tour in less than seven hours, for an average of just under 30 km per hour.
Conditions this past weekend were also ideal. Sunny, below freezing but not too cold, no wind, thick frost covering the trees and reeds.
2. The Dutch have managed to keep this madness in check by organising canal skating into carefully planned and laid-out tours, complete with signposts, colour-coded arrows, and for a few bucks, cute little cards which you get stamped at cute little booths set up every few miles.
Waiting in line for your stamp is a great opportunity to adjust your laces, chat with your friend or neighbour, breathe in the aroma of coffee, hot chocolate or traditional pea soup and – I hate to say it – call someone on your cellphone and ask them what, are you on life support or lying in the morgue? Get the hell out here.
3. Only Canadians who spontaneously decide to drive more than 500 km in from another country wear hockey skates in Holland. That was the first thing I noticed. Nearly everyone skates with those long-bladed speed skates. Occasionally you see a young girl or teenager on figure skates, but the speed skaters must out-number the others a thousand to one. And it’s no wonder they use speed skates to cover those long stretches. I’d be moving along at a pretty good clip only to have skaters silently overtake me with what seemed like half the effort I was putting out. Someone even asked as I was lacing up at the start of the 40-km tour Saturday whether I was really going to be doing such a long tour in those skates.
The hockey blades did come in handy Sunday morning though. All alone on a backwater at sunrise I did a few turns with the stick and puck, stopping long enough to set up a self-timer shot.
But since playing hockey, like life I guess, gets old pretty soon if you don’t have someone to pass the puck to – or at least bash into the boards – I went back to the car and put them away. Besides, I didn’t like the idea of carrying that stick for dozens of miles.
4. Speed and hockey skates aren’t the only things that help you slide over the ice. I stopped to look at one little boy who was flying along wearing nothing more on his feet than gumboots and skates that, had they looked weather-beaten, would have been well-placed in a museum. I asked his mother if she’d fished them out of the attic, and she said yes – they were at least 60 years old. Her husband had learned to skate on them after they were handed down from his father.
Another man used what I’ll call, um… Swedish strap-ons, because – strictly taking his word for it – he said they were invented in Sweden for alternating between hiking through forests and skating over lakes.
5. Speaking of switching back and forth, if you’re doing a skating tour in Holland it’s absolutely essential to bring along a pair of blade protectors, because you’re not just gliding blissfully all day from one end of the country to the next without interruption. At times, just when you’re getting into it and you feel you could go for another few miles without a break, you HAVE to take a break. Why?
To get to the next canal. After a while the ice you’re on just runs out, so you slip on the rubber or plastic blade protectors, climb up onto the road, and walk through town. There’s even a word in Dutch for it: Klunen. The awkward dance of balancing yourself at the edge of the canal to get on and off the ice is also a rare opportunity to lose your balance and make groping bodily contact with someone in lycra tights, if that’s your thing.
Sometimes a bridge will get in the way. For that, you can go through the hassle of putting on those blade protectors once again, or just crawl under.
6. The Dutch are really friendly when they’re out on the ice, and you don’t have to have skates to have fun. Neighbourhood kids squealing with delight as they make a train out of sleds, couples out walking the dog, kids on bicycles, moms and dads pushing baby buggies or hauling sleighs – they’re all out there on the ice. With hundreds of miles of track there’s room for most everyone.
7. This is something I’d forgotten: the ice makes noise. Sometimes you’ll be booting along and all of a sudden you’ll hear a resounding BONGGGGGGGG and for a second you’ll think oh shit we’re doomed but then you tell yourself it’s just the normal process of the ice settling and it will ultimately make the track safer as long as the temperature stays the same. Or so I’ve heard.
8. If you’re not careful, you can fall flat on your butt. This has to be the biggest downside of having a hundred thousand skates and skaters on the same patch of ice every day. The ice develops a few cracks which turn into deep gouges.
If you happen to be skating along a stretch that hasn’t been cleaned off by a Dutch Zamboni….
… you won’t see the crack and you’ll be on your ass before you know it.
9. Even if you don’t speak a word of Dutch, you have to check out the Royal Skating Union’s website to get the low-down on where to go. At top left you’ll find a box to click on for the natural ice tours open. Be patient. Google translate actually comes in handy.
10. Near Rotterdam at Kinderdijk you can skate by a cluster of 19 of Holland’s grandest of icons. They were built around 270 years ago and were still in use until 1950. It’s now a UNESCO heritage site. Some are thatched with the reeds that grow nearby, others made of brick or wood. A couple were even turning, like this one on the Molentocht (Windmill tour):
OK… 11 things…
Skating in Holland can be an incredibly beautiful experience.
Elation, exhilaration, skipping like a puppy and bursting with a whoop of joy merely to be alive as I made those first strides on a glistening, black surface that seemed to stretch out as far as the horizon.
Trees bristling with frost, every twig enveloped in a bottle-brush of crystal, sparkling in the orange-blue wash of the morning. And all so still.
You hear a lot about the sweet spot of tennis, how good it feels when you hit the ball exactly the way you should and it lands just where you want it to. There’s something about that in the rhythmic dance of skating when you hit the right cadence, when you’re cutting through the surface in a complete connection from your temples through your thighs down to the bottom of your feet, feeling the blades as if they were an extension of your bones as they scrape…scrape…scrape, a thousand times effortlessly across the ice. You get the feeling you’re floating, as if you were falling into a trance.
I felt that at times this weekend.