FAIRLEE, Vt. -- Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. That's not a sound usually associated with ice-skating, but when you've got two oversized Nordic-skating blades attached to your feet, a little cadence goes a long way toward remaining upright and experiencing what some say is the next best thing to flying.
Nordic blades are similar to what speedskaters use to become blurs of movement, and what Europeans and Canadians use to propel themselves across miles of ice.
A scattering of neophytes wobble around on what is reputedly the longest groomed ice track in the country at the Lake Morey WinterFest here, where a glorious, 2-mile collection of loops and straightaways frees skaters from the usual tight oval of rinks. This four-day event (stretched over three weekends) on enormous Lake Morey, surrounded by hills draped in thick bolts of forest, celebrates various human-powered (and dog-powered) means of goofing off in the snow and on the ice. The festival ends Saturday with a skate-a-thon where you can clip into a dashing set of Nordic blades and fulfill your Hans Brinker-Bonnie Blair-Eric Heiden fantasies.
Festival or no, however, you can do Nordic skating anytime it's cold enough. The blades are 17-22 inches long and clip onto cross-country ski boots that have Salomon SNS or Rottefella NNN bindings (although boots more than 15 years old won't fit). One huge advantage of Nordic blades is that you don't have to fumble with laces out on a cold lake. You can put on your cross-country boots inside where it's warm, carry the blades to the lake, clip into the binding, and away you go.
Peter Schouw of Avon, Conn., cuts a fine figure at WinterFest, his graceful movements honed from learning on the longer blades as a small boy in the Netherlands.
''It's learning how to shift your weight from one skate to the other," Schouw says. ''A lot of beginners skate between their blades instead."
That's where the cadence comes in. A slow, steady tick-tock-tick-tock rhythm allows you to slowly build speed, adjust your balance on one skate and then the other, and interpret what works to keep you upright and zooming along without looking too much like Charlie Chaplin on ice.
With more surface area meeting the ice than with hockey or figure skates, the longer Nordic blades offer greater stability and are actually easier to learn on, says Russell Curtis, president of the Bay State Speedskating Club, which runs many of its programs out of the Ted Iorio Arena in Walpole.
''You get down as low as you can," Curtis says. ''It's a crouched position, with your knees over your toes and your hips as close to your ankles as you can get." Ouch.
''Not everyone is going to be able to get down to the optimal position," Curtis acknowledges. ''People develop at their own pace."
Jamie Hess, WinterFest organizer and owner of Nordic Skater, a skating and cross-country ski shop in Norwich, Vt., first tried the longer blades in Europe. He racked up marathon runs of 125 miles, and has been importing the blades for the last five years. He leads clinics and day-trips on lakes and even rivers.
''When the ice is good, you can explore places in ways you can't otherwise," he says.
Marathon skater Dick Ring of North Chelmsford keeps his eye on local ponds and lakes and skates outdoors whenever he can. He says ice should be about 2 inches thick to hold two people safely, and says he can tell the thickness of the ice just by looking at it. ("I go by the color.") He recommends other people dig a small hole in the ice with a screwdriver or ice pick and measure the thickness that way.''I've been speed skating since about 1943 and have been on national and international teams throughout my life," he says. ''I enjoy training as much as I do racing. It's a real high to be out on a secluded lake in a setting similar to a Currier & Ives picture. I'm at peace with myself there."
Clare Innes is a freelance writer in Vermont.