SARANAC LAKE - Caper Tissot says there's something special about skating outdoors on a frozen lake or pond - a feeling you don't get skating inside on a refrigerated rink.
"It's the allure of being outside," said Tissot, author of "Adirondack Ice: A Cultural and Natural History." "I love the fresh wind in your face. I love the views. I love the cold air. I love the whole sense of gliding over what you're paddling over in the summer and the idea that you're skating over the same place with the fish underneath. It's just a thrill."
For decades, the thrill of outdoor skating has been enjoyed by Saranac Lakers young and old: on frozen lakes, ponds and man-made ice rinks throughout the community. It's been an important part of the village's culture and history.
A young Natalie (Bombard) Leduc, left, stands with Ruth Lamy, daughter of legendary speed skater Ed Lamy, next to the Curling Club in 1944.
(Photo courtesy of Natalie Leduc)
But some say that tradition has faded over the years, that outdoor skating has taken a backseat to other, more popular winter sports like downhill and cross-country skiing, and to the ease and relative comfort of skating indoors.
That may be true. Skating is no longer what it used to be for Saranac Lake in the early 20th century, when the village hosted dozens of world-class speed skating events, or in the 1960s and 1970s when hundreds of kids and adults skated each day on the huge man-made rink at Petrova field.
But there are plenty of people who are keeping the area's rich history of outdoor public skating alive by creating and maintaining outdoor rinks, whether it's for playing hockey, figure skating or just for the thrill of gliding across the ice with the wind in your face.
He probably wasn't the first person to do it, but local historian Mary Hotaling says the first documented evidence of outdoor skating in Saranac Lake is of Robert Louis Stevenson skating on Moody Pond during his stay at what's now known as the Stevenson Cottage from October 1887 to April 1888. Mike Delehant, resident curator of the Stevenson Cottage, said the skates Stevenson used on Moody Pond are in a display case in the Stevenson Cottage Museum.
From the late 1890s, when the Pontiac Club put on the first winter carnival in Saranac Lake, and continuing into the early 20th century, outdoor skating grew to be wildly popular in the village. Pontiac Bay in Lake Flower, where the ice blocks for the Winter Carnival Ice Palace are now cut, was the site of numerous skating events and competitions.
"Saranac Lake had a very rich history in the early 20th history of ice skating, particularly on Pontiac Bay, and had very exciting events, which I wish we would bring back," Tissot said. "There was speedskating, barrel jumping, backward hurdle jumping. You had huge grandstands down where the ice palace is, facing the lake. These were big events in Saranac Lake."
Pontiac Bay was also where Saranac Lake native son Ed Lamy made a name for himself by thrilling audiences that numbered in the thousands with his barrel jumping and by winning international speed skating competitions.
Natalie (Bombard) Leduc said Lamy was one of several world-class skaters the village produced, two of whom were her neighbors growing up on River Street.
"I lived right where Nonna Fina (restaurant) is now," she said. "Ed Horton lived right next door and Ed Lamy lived right across the street. So we always used to skate, and often enough we were skating by Thanksgiving on the lake. Ed Lamy used to be able to sign his name with his skate blades on the ice."
A rink for every neighborhood
Leduc said skating was very popular among kids and adults in the 1940s when she was growing up in the village because "it was free, and Saranac Lake was very outdoor oriented."
"There was no television, no computers, and skiing's popularity really hadn't started, so there was no competition," Leduc said.
Ron Keough, who grew up in the same era as Leduc, said it seemed as if every neighborhood had its own rink.
"One place we did a lot of skating was the rink where Lake Colby School is now," he said. "We walked there, and everybody would go over to Bea LaFountain's restaurant afterwards for hot chocolate and donuts.
The Cantwells kept a rink going on Moody Pond. There was another rink in a lot off of Catherine Street that was mostly for hockey.
"The other place there was skating was at the back of St. Bernard's School. We were allowed to come out of school, draw the fire hoses out of the bottom of the church, flood the rink, drain all the hoses, fold them and put them back in the basement. You were allowed to get out of class (to skate) so long as your marks were above 85 and you had your homework done for the day."
While the Pontiac Bay rink was the center of outdoor skating in the village during the first half of the 20th century, the massive 16-acre, man-made ice sheet at Petrova field was the social hub for the village in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
Parents brought young children to the rink to learn how to skate. The Saranac Lake High School hockey team played its games there. Boyfriends and girlfriends went there on dates.
"It was one of the most popular things here in the winter," said author, former mayor and former Enterprise editor Howard Riley. "It was a huge rink. They had an outdoor track and a bank of snow separating that from an inside circle where little kids or people learning to skate could go in the center. They had huge lights around it for skating at night. There were hundreds of people up there at a time skating."
Keough said he went to the Petrova rink as a kid, skated there with his girlfriend in high school and helped keep it in shape as an adult with George Bedore and Bing Kunath.
Bedore told the Enterprise in 1999 that he spent 75 to 80 hours a week maintaining what he called "the world's largest, natural-refrigerated ice-skating rink." Speed skating and barrel jumping championships were held there, he said.
"But more important than that, every day and night, seven days a week there'd be 500, maybe 600 kids out there," Bedore said. "It made me proud just to watch them skate around my rink."
The best part about it was that it was free, said Marlene Hyde of Saranac Lake who recalled skating at the Petrova rink as a kid.
"We just didn't have the funds to go skiing or other things, so that was a place for us to go," she said. "It was also a place where we'd see all our friends, and it was just a comforting place for me."
But the rink's run came to an end by 1980 when the field became a parking lot for the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. There were attempts to bring it back after the games, but they failed amid concerns about what it was costing the village to run the rink and what it was costing the school district each year to repair its athletic fields.
Riley said he tried to revive the Petrova rink when he was village manager in 1999, "but when I worked out the budget for it, and everything is union now, it just wasn't affordable. When you start adding up all that labor of keeping it clean, swept and flooded - in this day and age, you couldn't make it work in the budget."
End of an era
For many people, the demise of the Petrova rink was the start of the decline of outdoor skating in Saranac Lake.
"A lot has changed since then," Keough said. "Instead of just skating, people got to the point where they had choices about whether they could speed skate, figure skate, play hockey, cross-country ski, downhill ski, snowboard, snowshoe or go snowmobiling. That kind of divided it up.
"I think we've lost it and it's too bad in my mind because there was a lot of family participation there. You'd go up to the rink at Petrova and it would not be a surprise to have three generations skating there at the same time. I think a lot of that has been lost."
Tissot said the convenience of indoor skating, where the ice surface is more consistent and it's not 10 degrees below zero, was also a factor.
But some people are working to keep the tradition going in the Saranac Lake area. Marlene Hyde and her husband Tom have been volunteering for the past seven years to provide free public skating at a man-made rink behind the Saranac Lake Civic Center. Both the village and the town of Harrietstown provide funding for the rink.
Marlene Hyde said it has gotten busier and busier every year. Her husband Tom, who maintains the rink with Mark Weller, said they added new lighting and expanded the size of the rink this year.
Marlene Hyde said she feels it's important for kids and adults in the community to have an opportunity to skate outdoors for free. It's part of Saranac Lake's history, she said.
"Really for me it's the memories," she said. "It makes people want to remain in the community and raise their children in the community, because they remember what a great place it was and what a good time we had. It's important for the children and the people who live here."
And it's not just Saranac Lake. Other communities have outdoor skating rinks that are going strong, or are planning to create new ones.
Lake Placid's Olympic Speed Skating Oval continues to be a major draw for tourists and local residents. Mirror Lake in Lake Placid has also been the site of annual pond hockey tournaments.
In Tupper Lake, the village and town are working together to create an outdoor rink for public use at the Municipal Park.
The town of St. Armand has run an outdoor rink behind the Bloomingdale firehouse for years.
"I've been a supervisor 30 years, and we've had an outdoor rink just about all those 30 years," said Supervisor Joyce Morency. "We have kids who come from all over: Saranac Lake, Vermontville. Sometimes I have full hockey teams down here at night. It's good for the youth. It does cost the taxpayers a little money, but sometimes you need to do what you need to do for the right causes."
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.