The serene beauty of black ice

Skating across Sweden's lakes can be an almost mystical experience.
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The Independent Culture
Last weekend I walked on water. OK, not exactly walked; in fact I skated, across a vast lake in the eerie light at the end of a Swedish winter's day. As I reached the middle - a long way from anywhere - a sudden loss of faith hit me in the pit of my stomach.

All my instincts told me I shouldn't be there. So did a lot of received wisdom. "Danger! Thin ice" say the signs back at home during rare cold snaps, when the news always has some weather-related incident: "...a man drowned trying to rescue his dog when it fell through ice on a lake. The dog later scrambled to safety unaided."

But here I am, just an hour out of Stockholm, without even a hapless mutt to blame for my predicament, on ice so clear that it is invisible. The film of water that covers the surface on mild days such as this forms a perfect, reflecting pool stretching to the end of the lake over a mile away.

The only indication that you are not walking on water, other than your previous experience of the physical world, is the occasional ominous creaking sound. Worse still is the sight of a crack, by which you can gauge just how thick or, more accurately, how thin, the ice is.

Yet the redeeming features of the situation more than compensate for the occasional panic attack. Standing motionless in this landscape is as serene as it is weird. As you set off across the surface, gliding silently, it is hard to be sure that you're moving again.

This magic carpet ride is quite unlike any other sensation the outdoor world has to offer, knocking mountain-top sunsets into a mundane second place. Nothing could come close to the ghostly calm and gravity-defying strangeness of the lake. No wonder so many of my fellow skaters deem it "a religious experience". Certainly these conditions are about as common as a miracle, to judge by their reactions - you can skate every weekend for years and not come across ice like this, and here I am on my first skating tour, hitting the jackpot.

Even under more conventional skating conditions, when you don't think you've shifted into a parallel universe, tour skating has a lot to offer, and is not as foolhardy as it sounds. Equipment, training and going with experienced guides make it nearly as safe as a couple of laps round Streatham ice rink, and there's less chance of being mugged on your way home.

To cope with varied ice conditions, special skates are used. The long blades clip with ski-like bindings to leather boots that have a good sole for hiking sections between lakes.

Everything else you carry is essential safety equipment: most important are "ice-picks" - steel toothpicks mounted in knife handles - which are worn in a protective holder high around the neck. If you happen to go through the ice, these are the only means by which you can haul yourself out.

A pack full of spare clothes, food, drink and a map is also vital; sealing everything in dry-bags ensures that the pack doubles as a buoyancy aid. A throw rope is also attached to each skater's pack, to help in hauling you out in the event of a dip. Especially comforting to shaky skaters are pikes - a bit like ski poles - which are carried for a multitude of reasons: they can help you stay upright on rough surfaces, be tucked suavely under one arm when you're feeling flash, or help fight a headwind, used with a punting action.

Most alarmingly, they are also used by guides to stab the ice violently when its strength is suspect - just when I am sucking my stomach in and creeping around to avoid weakening the surface.

Another ice test is to jump up and down as you skate along - a technique that could lead to the third method, of prodding it simultaneously with your elbows and backside.

Back out on the lake, we're almost home and dry. My feet have been wanting to call it a day ever since somewhere near the beginning, but the hypnotic, rhythmic swaying of the skaters up ahead has towed me through the Bruegelesque landscape under sleeting, glowering skies. For brief moments, it all comes together: my technique and the pinging, creaking and groaning as the ice resonates under my skates, sounding like whale song.

Then there's the relief of each trek through crunchy pine forest as we slither off one lake and on to the next, and the endless distraction of the ice itself - a trapped fish or leaf, intricate frosting patterns or a clear shallow section with the lake bed visible a few feet below.

Silhouetted at dusk against the glowing white ice of the lake's edge, we remove our skates for the last time with a rare feeling of having seized the moment. And we're right: within two days, snowfall has transformed the landscape and the perfect black ice. Nobody knows when and where it may be found again.

Get Your Skates On

THE BEST skating is usually found within 200km north and south of Stockholm, where there are hundreds of lakes. Under the right conditions, you can skate from within the city and on sea ice around the archipelago.

An airfares war to Scandinavia means you can get to Stockholm for around pounds 100 on Ryanair (0541 569 569) from Stansted; SAS (0845 607 2772) from Stansted, Heathrow or Manchester; KLMuk (0990 074 074) from London City; or a Finnair/BA (0345 222 111) joint operation from Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester.

Costs of skating are similar to a typical winter holiday, but without the lift ticket; how far you have to go for good ice is the biggest variable.

The Stockholm Information Service (00 46 8 789 2495; fax: 00 46 8 789 2491; e-mail: info@stoinfo.se) gives details of operators who run trips, and of equipment hire. A bonus of going with experienced skaters is that they know where to find the best ice. They also know useful and amazing facts, for instance that ice is always thinner or unformed beneath power lines (yes, if you live near some, you are being fried).

Distances routinely covered when tour skating sound huge, but 40km or more for a day trip is not impossible if you get in a few weekends on in-line skates beforehand.

On-line access is useful. Search "tour skating" on the Web. Bjorn Nilsson (e-mail: bjorne.blankis@stockholm.mail. telia.com) arranges skating tours and can provide equipment.

For more serious skating, try the Vikingarannet ("viking race", www. vikingarannet.com) with 5,000 people skating 80km from Uppsala to Stockholm on 13 February. It's fully booked for this year, but spectators are welcome.

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