Huffington Post says, “You’re not Canadian until you’ve skated through a forest in the dead of winter.”
And while I’m not ready to go that far, forest skating did feel pretty Canadian.
Being able to skate at all feels very Canadian to me. I learned to skate when I started school, just after moving to Grand Falls, Newfoundland, Canada from England. My father learned with me but shortly after that I was zooming around the rink leaving him behind. Like most Canadian kids, I skated with school for physical education classes, trundling over to the rink carrying our skates. I took figure skating for a few years until it got too fancy, dance-y, and frilly.
Later, with my own kids, I started skating again. I’m not very good, a bit wobbly, but I still love it. When we were on sabbatical in Australia and New Zealand, and we wanted to feel competent at a sport, we went skating. They have ice rinks, they rent skates, and there we felt like stars on ice. Our average Canadian skating ability put us in pretty elite group at a family skate in the southern hemisphere.
But back to skating in the woods this weekend, without kids, not in a skating rink. Instead, outdoors! The woods! My favorite place to be.
What is it? It’s an ice trail through the forest. So cool. They’ve flooded a road connecting campsites and they maintain the ice surface with a zamboni.
There’s an outdoor fire place where you change and outdoor lockers to store your boots.
I loved the woods which seemed to block the wind. Previously my outdoor skating had been on open lakes, ponds, and rivers and so wind was definitely a factor.
The slight inclines, both up and down, presented a new challenge. I’d never skated up or downhill before. Also, no boards to hang on to when you’re taking a break or retying your laces.
There was a great range of ages. Lots and lots of little kids but also some speedy senior citizens whipping around holding hands.
Jeff and I ended up skating in part because our cross country ski plans were set back. We arrived at the park on the day of the Muskoka Loppet, a cross country ski race, and all the ski trails, the easy ones anyway, were in use.
So we skated for a bit instead.
Some evenings they light the trail with by tiki lanterns so you can skate through the woods after dark. I’d love to do that!
Fall brings the start of classes, and for me a welcome return to my favorite university class of all. Not the ones I teach, but the student wellness course I take. In the olden days, students had a couple of required PE classes that consisted mostly of running around the track. The country club atmosphere now means students can meet their wellness requirement by exploring activities from billiards to horseback riding, yoga to rock-climbing. As a faculty member, I can join a student ice skating class with personalized coaching for a negligible fee.
A few years ago I was suffering from hip and knee pain, was diagnosed with arthritis and got sent to physical therapy. There I was forbidden to continue running, at least until the pain and swelling in my knees went down—and possibly forever. When I complained about this sad fate to my child’s preschool teacher, she suggested I take the ice skating class she also teaches, on the theory that it’s a no-impact sport that uses lateral movement to build leg and hip strength. I’m from Texas, where my only exposure to ice was in drinks, so I was an utter beginner at skating. And on my first trips to the rink, I noticed that there were few people over 30 on the ice, and that the skaters who were as old as me had years and years of experience behind them. The few adults skating were clearly the result of a selection process that discouraged the inept. I braced myself for a steep learning curve.
I was a slow learner, but with a patient and encouraging teacher, the process was addictive. I don’t jump or spin (yet), but I’ve gotten good enough that I don’t worry about falling. I can do crossovers and 3-turns, swing rolls and spirals. Lynne Tirell has written about the discipline demanded by ballet, and I’ll cop to becoming obsessed with the school figures that are no longer a compulsory part of competition because TV audiences couldn’t stand the tedium.
Skating is the most cerebral sport I’ve ever tried. If my body is tired, I can still skate; if my mental focus is off, there’s no hope. First, there’s relearning the laws of physics. And then, like dance, there’s keeping track of where all the body parts are in 3-dimensional space. Early on, I thought that if I could just learn to skate forward and backward, I’d be well on my way to mastery. But no—each move has to be learned individually, for inside and outside edges, forward and backward motion, right and left foot. Eventually, I’ll worry about intangibles like grace and creative expression, too. Skating requires—and builds—strength, flexibility, balance, and aerobic fitness. More than those, it’s the cumulative skill set that opens up new ways of moving on the ice. For me, that deep range of skill separates skating from a sport like running. It adds to the challenge and, therefore, the attraction. Learning a new move feels much more like training my brain than training my body.
I’m lucky to have access to a rink and a teacher, which would be expensive if I weren’t working at a university that keeps the ice frozen year-round. The cost of the equipment for skating is not prohibitive, but the cost of access is—as it also can be for swimming, golf, or downhill skiing. And skating fits perfectly into my daily academic schedule, since I can do it on campus, without needing to change or shower.
Learning to ice skate as an adult is rare but worthwhile. It seems different from learning as a child. After years of running and biking and sitting at my desk, skating has revealed poor biomechanics, posture, and strength imbalances. The perception of risk is different, too. My knees feel fragile, and I’m more cautious about falling than my younger class peers. (And the risk is real: every semester, it seems, someone falls, breaks an arm, gets a concussion, is carried off by EMTs.) But at the same time, the speed I can get on ice skating blades and the awareness of risk provide a rush that I can’t get from running or yoga.
The gender dynamic can’t be ignored. For a long time, I was just skating—sometimes on hockey blades and sometimes with figure skates. Hockey skates are faster and more maneuverable; figure skates are more stable but permit greater precision at slow speeds. Only recently have I needed to choose to pursue one style rather than the other. I’m not attracted to playing on teams, so that was the deciding factor. My university has a highly ranked women’s hockey team, but even so, on any given day, the number of men on hockey skates is greater than the number of women, and only rarely does a guy show up wearing figure skates. At the same time, there are guys who don’t play hockey and are devoted to working on tricks and moves that would be best done on figure skates—but they don’t want to be perceived as figure skaters because of the gender overtones. If I had a young daughter who wanted to figure skate, I would have serious reservations about the gender-conformist costumes and moves.
A few years ago I would not have thought that ice-skating would be a sport I would seriously consider. Hockey seemed too aggressive and figure skating too, well, feminine. I didn’t like the thought of taking time for something I was not already somewhat good at. (At least good enough to stay off the ground!) Although good skaters look graceful, I was skeptical that, starting as an adult, I could become that accomplished. As a feminist, I should have known better than to buy into these doubtful presumptions! I enjoy skating, and I enjoy how my body feels because of the skating.
Skating feels like flying. The absence of friction on the ice is freedom from the constraints of ordinary physics.
Evelyn Brister is an associate professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology. Her research areas are philosophy of science, social epistemology, and environmental decision-making, and she has recently been working on integrating applied critical thinking throughout the university curricula. A passion for ice has not displaced a passion for trees, so walking in the woods still figures highly in her universe.
I love to skate. I grew up figure skating, but when I started to teach power and hockey skating classes nearly a decade ago, I got myself a pair of hockey skates– and I loved them! Since then, I’ve always wanted to play hockey, but it took me up until a few months ago (when I moved to Halifax) to actually gain the courage to give it a shot.
All these years, I’ve avoided playing hockey because I was skeptical about finding equipment that would fit my curvy, short, and muscular body. I was afraid that if I did manage to find equipment, I wouldn’t be able to skate with the extra bulk on my already bulky body. And I was terrified that I was going to look ridiculous with all that equipment on. I imagined that my body in hockey equipment would look more like the Michelin Man (yup, that big puffy tire mascot), than a hockey player.
Deep down, I told myself that it would be less embarrassing and easier if I just lost some weight before I started playing hockey. Ugh… my feminist-self is embarrassed that I felt this kind of body shame!
Waiting to lose weight before trying a recreational sport (or living your life!) is silly. I know. But, it still took me years (of not losing weight) and moving to a new city (where nobody I knew would get to see me playing in full hockey gear) to finally try something that I didn’t think I had the “right” body shape for.
When it came time to actually buy the hockey gear, it turned out to be less embarrassing, but way more challenging than I had imagined.
I curbed some of my embarrassment by bringing a hockey-gear-shopping buddy. I told her that her job was to make sure that my butt didn’t look “too big” in my hockey pants—ha! But really, she was the moral support that I needed. It was nice to have someone on my team when exposing myself and my body to the sales guys at the sports store. With her support, it felt easier to tell the sales guy that something didn’t fit and to explain what I needed for my body. (Telling the teenaged sales guy that “my boobs and butt are too big for this gear” felt less embarrassing with my friend’s support). Most of all, it helped having my friend there to tell me just how exciting my new hockey adventure was going to be. She told me that I looked like a hockey ninja with all my gear on. And it helped.
Finding gear that fit me properly was a different story. Before I started I Googled “best hockey equipment for curvy women” and nothing came up. I wasn’t that surprised. I don’t look anything like the men or women I’d seen playing hockey.
Here’s what I learned about hockey equipment: In general, the men’s gear is too long for my body. The women’s gear is too narrow. Most stores don’t carry that many options for women’s gear, anyways. Some children’s gear (like the XL hockey pants) fit okay, but the straps and padding on most of the other children’s gear are way too small. I haven’t been able to find should pads and chest protectors that fit my shoulder to boob ratio. It seems that to women’s chest protectors don’t have cup size options. Nor have I been able to find elbow or shin pads that are short enough, while providing good coverage with straps that are long enough to go around my arms and legs.
I’ve chatted with some of my teammates about this. And some of them had similar problems with finding hockey equipment. If there are any hockey gear manufacturers reading this, how about you make some equipment for differently shaped women!?
In the end, I settled on some combination of men’s and children’s hockey gear. Still, none of my gear fits me perfectly, but it will have to do—because I’m excited to play!
On the ice, I adjusted pretty quickly to wearing hockey equipment. The hardest thing to get used to was wearing a helmet with a cage. For the first few games, the cage made me feel nauseous, but at least I could skate.
My concerns about what I look like in full hockey gear are fading. In the beginning, however, I did catch myself checking out my reflection in the rink glass a few times. But the more I play and the better I get, the less I give a shit about what I look like.
And it turns out that no one else cares about what I look like either. When I finally let some of my friends come to watch me play they didn’t think that I, or anyone else, looked ridiculous or out of place. To them, we all looked like hockey players, because we were playing hockey.
Surprisingly, I still don’t know what I look like in my gear. Because it doesn’t matter.
What matters is that I get to play. And this little hockey ninja wishes that she hadn’t waited so long to try playing in the first place.
Angel is a postdoc at Dalhousie University. She completed her Ph.D. at the University of Western Ontario. She is a feminist philosopher. She is also a skater— and the rink is where she feels most at home.
Follow her on Twitter @APetropanagos