In the new world of unreliable snowfall, ice skates offer a swift and sublime form of backcountry travel.
The sky was the color of charcoal when Luc Mehl stepped onto the frozen ribbon of the Selawik River. The smoldering ember of the horizon announced the arrival of a cold, clear day. But it hadn’t come yet. It was hardly 10 a.m., in late November, and still mostly dark in northwestern Alaska.The blades of Mehl’s skates clacked against the white river ice, streaked in places with wind-cemented snow. He pushed off and cautiously began to build momentum in the twilight.
Mehl wove across the river in search of the best conditions. Learning to read ice is like learning to read whitewater. “If you were in a boat, you’d be reading the ripples and reading the rocks and current,” he says. But here “you’re reading the ice textures.” Crrshhk, crrshhk. He clattered over ice that was cloudy and grey, trying to avoid ripples and air pockets, and eventually swung back near the bank. Shhhh, shhhh. Here, a fresh layer of water had flowed over older ice, creating a glossy, smooth track. Mehl found a rhythm and powered up to cruising speed.
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