by Christy Cole
I started to have Pandemic Winter Anxiety long before the first snow fell. By mid-summer, we had finally figured out how to see friends and family safely. The connection we found in distanced campfires, hikes and bike rides was a relief after the isolation and uncertainty of spring. But even with the summer sun beating down on the top half of my masked face, I was already dreading the cold, dark winter. This was a new feeling for me. I have always enjoyed winter. Fresh snow, crunchy cross-country ski trails, following animal tracks in the woods. We stay cozy inside, too, blocking the whistling old-house drafts with rolled up blankets and a blazing wood stove. But we have always counted on sharing meals and long evenings with our loved ones to bring true light to the winter darkness. Our daughter is a social 5-year-old now, and we worried about the effects of enrolling her in virtual classes instead of traditional in-person elementary school, too. It was hard to imagine how we would get through those long nights of temperature amnesia, when it seems like it has always been winter and always will be winter.
Then friends offered us a modular skating rink. Their family had enjoyed it for many years, but with their daughter off at college, they were done using it regularly. I immediately said yes, and then figured out how to break the news to my husband, who has good reason to be skeptical of my projects.
To the west of our ridge-top home is a flat area that was scraped clean of topsoil and filled in with gravel decades ago. The grain bins that used to stand there are long gone. It is the spot for stunning sunset views, scraggly summer weeds and raking winter winds. Just right for a skating rink. Joe was not as smitten with the whole idea as I was, but he gamely picked up the truckload of interlocking plastic rectangles and pounded them into the rocky ground in a wavy approximation of an oval. A friend who is a dairy farmer helped us find an enormous piece of silage plastic to use as a liner. I thawed out a hose, filled it up, and in three cold days we had a smooth skating rink. Not Pinterest pretty like the ones I had seen online, ringed by sparkling lights and matching modern chairs. But in spite of the floppy plastic liner and ragtag seating, it was perfect.
Few activities are as freeing as skating. When you are in the groove, you feel like yourself, but smoother, faster, more free. Joe and I were out of practice at first, and we started the season sharing one pair of clunky hockey skates that were too small for him and too large for me. Five-year-old Cleo had only been skating once before. But our adult muscle memory soon returned, and Cleo and her friends have gone quickly from wobbly to confidently zipping around the ice with snowpants padding their many, many spectacular falls.
We are also figuring out how our little rink responds to the roller-coaster weather that is our Driftless winter. After a heavy snow, the surface is soft and slow. On days when the wind howls, tiny particles of passing snow and ice polish the skate marks out of the ice until it is shiny, smooth and fast. On sunny days, leaves and sticks that blow onto the ice create their own uber-micro-climate, sinking into the ice like little dinosaurs of fall preserved until spring.
Our outdoor obligations often frame our winter outdoor activities here in the Driftless. Even if it is dark and windy there is no putting off walking the dog or gathering the eggs before they freeze and split. If the fire is low, we have to go down the hill to the woodpile to haul in more wood. When Joe picked up the rink from our friends, they teased him about having another thing to shovel all winter. But a task that is a prelude to seeing friends and moving our bodies through this pandemic winter is one worth doing any day.
Christy Cole lives at Windy Ridge Pottery near Mineral Point with her husband, Joe, and daughter, Cleo Inez.