Just the right kind of cold
New England’s little-known ponds make the best spots for skating. When the conditions are just right, grab your gear and go.
THE FROZEN PLAIN OF THE LAKE, turned pewter-gray in the afternoon light, emits booming noises as the ice shifts and groans beneath our weight. Sailing over the glassy surface of Phillips Pond in Sandown, New Hampshire, the blades of my skates make a whisk-whisk sound, my 10-year-old nephew, Owen, gliding along beside me. Owen’s dog pads ahead of our tiny skating party, sniffing the ice for the blur of a fox or rabbit crossing the lake from forest to vale.
Here in New England, the right combination of penetrating cold and precipitation creates a brief, memorable season for pond skating, usually from late December through January: an elemental adventure of cold air, ice, trees, and sky. We enjoy hiking to ponds on snowshoes, carrying our skates, hockey sticks, shovels, water, and a few calorie-dense snacks. Today, on Phillips Pond, where my nephews live, we’re traveling light, with a couple of high-tech layers beneath our fleece jackets, the kids decked out in their hockey helmets and shin pads.
Located across from the Sandown Public Library on Route 121A, Phillips Pond is 95 irregularly shaped acres, distinguished by an island just large enough to contain a single house. My 18-year-old son, Liam, and Owen’s 7-year-old brother, Reese, are a half mile away, at the northwestern corner of the lake, exploring a beaver lodge on the edge of a swamp.
Growing up in Methuen’s wooded central district, my friends and I lived within walking distance of three small bodies of water. Pond hockey was our passion, and we hurried home from school and onto the local swamp, using our boots for goals and playing until the streetlights came on. In midwinter, town plows kept busy scraping off the new snow, leaving a thin layer of ice on the streets. When my dad opened our back door and whistled, I’d skate home for supper, eat with newspapers spread beneath the table to protect the floor from my blades, then return to play in the moonlight. In the mid-1970s, six of us from that little neighborhood made Methuen High’s hockey team, perhaps the last generation of local players to acquire their skills on natural ice.
One of my fondest achievements as a father and uncle is that I’ve passed on my love of pond skating to my son and nephews. In winter, we specialize in improvised adventures, with our snowshoes, skates, and outdoor gear piled up by the kitchen door or rumbling around in the trunk of my car. Like Colonial Minutemen, we’re ready to skate on very short notice.
SAFETY COMES FIRST, and we always plan carefully. Bringing along a hand auger to drill small holes in the ice in several spots is a good idea; 4 to 6 inches thickness is typically quite safe. The presence of snowmobiles and ice fishing shacks means the ice is pretty thick, though we prefer having the pond to ourselves and enjoy more remote locations. A hockey stick is a must, serving as a probe to test discolored patches of ice as well as a necessary piece of pond hockey equipment. If we’re far from home, each of us carries a backpack with a spare hat, gloves, a puck or two, water bottle, some dried fruit or nuts, and a few energy bars. I stow a miniature first-aid kit in my pack, as well as my phone and a topographic map if we’ve hiked in. Although I skate without socks, the kids wear fleece ones, and on subzero days, I slip little chemical warming packets inside their skates. They also don helmets with face masks and their hockey gloves, elbow pads, and shin pads for protection against falls.
It’s rare that conditions are just right for open-ice skating. Either the pond has frozen solid early in the season, without a snowfall, or an unexpected thaw and rain is followed by frigid weather. Perfection is acres of smooth, hard ice, with a backdrop of forested hills. At Beech Hill Pond in Otis, Maine, my old college pal Ron Martin, a retired Marine who owns a cabin there, once skated the entire pond in the teeth of a ferocious wind. To make headway, he went striding along in a deep crouch, hugging the shoreline and tacking back and forth like a sailboat. At the far end of the lake, Ron veered into the middle and let the wind push him all the way back. It was a crazy ride, exceeding 20 miles per hour, and he was forced to leap over ridges and cracks like one of those Depression-era barrel jumpers.
Last winter there was great local ice, and Liam and I skated five or six times on Hillsies Pond in Methuen, where I played a lot of hockey as a kid. Hillsies (also known as Hills Pond or Baremeadow Pond) is actually two small ponds, one slightly higher than the other, in a residential neighborhood. People driving along Milk Street wave or honk their horns when they see us playing. Nearly everyone who grew up in the Merrimack Valley has a soft spot for pond hockey.
IN RECENT YEARS, the best skating has been on Phillips Pond. After a frenetic hockey game, our little expedition has set out to explore the rest of the lake. Temperatures are in the low 20s, but there’s not much wind. A high, thin cloud cover blankets the sky, and the departing sun has left a faint yellow streak above the pine trees clustered along the shore. If you dress properly and are in decent shape, the cold air and perpetual motion are invigorating.
My brother Patrick has lit a fire in front of his house by the pond’s edge, and the boys, still in their skates, jostle one another as they grill hot dogs and marshmallows. Standing on my blades in the middle of the lake, my stick slung across my hips, I watch what’s left of the sun disappear over the horizon: the ice, the tree line, the sky graded into various shades of blue, sealing off Phillips Pond from the rest of the world. It strikes me that I’m a lucky man — there’s nowhere I’d rather be, and no one I’d rather share it with.
The air is growing colder, and the smell of wood smoke drifts across the lake. Over by the fire, the boys are yelling for me to join them. Swinging around in an easy loop, I reach into my pocket, flip a puck onto the ice, then rear back and shoot it as hard as I can. The disk goes flying in the air, skips once, twice, and then whizzes along, into the early darkness.
New England is dotted with thousands of ponds and lakes that feature great skating when the weather is right. Keep in mind, pond skating is the ultimate DIY activity. There are no lifeguards, and you skate at your own risk. Shallow neighborhood ponds or frozen creeks, some no more than a couple of feet deep, are usually safest.
Matt Garceau, a semi-retired business owner, prefers Arlington Pond in Salem, New Hampshire, where he owns a home. He uses a cordless drill with a 1-inch spade bit and a tape measure to determine the thickness of the ice. Garceau, at 190 pounds, says he has skated on the ice when it was 3 inches thick, but won’t take his 5-year-old daughter, Madelanne, out for a skating lesson unless his tape measure shows the ice is 4.5 inches or better. He takes several measurements because the thickness can vary.
Your outdoor hockey venue has serious “pond cred” if TV star and Canadian native Michael J. Fox once skated there. Silver Lake in Barnard, Vermont, is just such a place, according to Beth Finlayson, director of the Woodstock Area Chamber of Commerce and a Barnard resident. Fox skated at Silver Lake when he lived in the area, says Finlayson. She and her husband, Ron Brown, were pond hockey enthusiasts when their children were younger and spent many winter weekends on Silver Lake, which is located on Route 12 across from the Barnard General Store. Everyone who helps shovel the snow off the ice gets to play. “Even I did, pathetically,” says Finlayson with a laugh, noting that local families and students from Vermont Law School in nearby South Royalton hold pond hockey games on the lake during the winter.
Steve Anzuoni, owner of Athletic Republic Kingston, a sports training gym in Kingston, spends every possible minute skating with his family on Little Sandy Pond in Plymouth. In fact, there are a half-dozen nameless kettle ponds and bogs along Little Sandy Pond Road, and when the ice is good, the whole neighborhood turns out for tailgating and pond hockey. Last winter, Anzuoni’s family was hosting a 19-year-old elite junior hockey player from Texas who had never seen a frozen pond in his life, except on TV. Anzuoni invited the young Texan along one day and “couldn’t get him off the ice. He loved it.”
The dead of winter is my favorite time to visit Walden Pond in Concord, since the empty woods make it easy to imagine what it was like when Henry David Thoreau lived there, from July 1845 to September 1847. Five-dollar parking is available in the lot across from the pond. Thoreau writes, “There, far from the village street . . . I slid and skated, as in a vast moose-yard well trodden, overhung by oak woods and solemn pines bent down with snow or bristling with icicles.”