Skating at Sycamore

by David Thomson

Ice skating on the canal rates right alongside Cub Scout baseball, pillow fights in the attic and fourth of July at the Monument as one of the greatest joys of growing up in Washington. My earliest memories are of sitting on the bank of the towpath, feet over the edge, alongside my older brother and sister waiting impatiently as my father went down the line of feet lacing one skate after another. I skated at that time, I thought, with a great deal of style -- run, glide and fall. A cold and wet business and I remember, still with a glow, warming my feet by the stove upstairs in the clubhouse beside Mr. Davis.

The canal froze every winter. Sometimes there was only enough ice for an evening or two of cautious figure-eights by lantern light up by Brickyard Road. Other years the canal froze thick enough, from Georgetown to Great Falls, for full-scale hockey games and bonfires and picnics out in the middle.

I grew up on canal ice and loved it -- but it is an acquired taste. (We learned early to ignore the message of the Park Service "No Skating" signs and to use the signs instead as boundary markers in our hockey games or as coat racks. Night time the canal freezes. Day time it thaws. Rocks and sticks thrown onto the ice by cautious skaters to test the thickness, sink half way through, then freeze in place like studs in a snow tire. Only right after the first freeze is the ice smooth. Soon, after a little rain, a snow and a melt or, worst of all, a drop in the water level of the canal, the ribbon of ice becomes gnarled soupy, and rutted. But, never mind. There's no need to turn or to go in circles. You can skate along forever, often by moonlight. And there is no piped music.

My father waves his head and says "bosh" or words to that effect, but I recall skating -- from Georgetown to Great Falls, just at Ed Wilcox did in the 1920s. There were areas without water -- at Seven Locks under Cabin John Bridge in particular -- and other places which failed to freeze, due, I suspect, to leaks from the neighboring sewer pipe. Of course all locks must be negotiated by land. But, fitted with a pair of not-too-good skates -- my hand-me-down, lightly rusted, black figure skates were just the ticket -- and following a good freeze, it was a trek I made each year -- in my mind at least.

The best skating, though, is on the river. As I was growing up, a freeze of the river was a very special time. I remember running down the hill from the Sycamore Store with my brother armed with snow shovels, skates and hockey sticks and spending full days manicuring the ice between Sycamore Island and the shore and then skating. The river ice was always much smoother than the canal, but also much thinner. We'd play wild games of tag weaving through the channels and small islands above Sycamore. Then suddenly the ice would begin to rumble and boom and fissures would shoot through the ice behind us. We'd separate and skate very fast back to thicker ice -- shaken for the moment but, of course, returning to the thin, smooth ice a few moments later. We never fell through; I'm not sure why.

My sister and I learned to play hockey against a pair of golden retrievers and a very tenacious Labrador. We used a stick for the puck. The object was to keep the stick away from the dogs. Toe nails bloodied, noses bruised, the dogs never gave us a chance. I graduated to ferocious, all day hockey games, 20 to a side -- played just downstream of the Sycamore Clipper. Mr. Davis always kept the channel open for the Clipper. He'd be out two or three times a day, and again at night, with his pole chipping ice away from the edge of his channel. I don't think the ferry ever froze in on Mr. Davis, but we did lose several hockey pucks in his stretch of open water.

The ultimate ice skating thrill though was to skate to Virginia. The wind usually howls up the river and the ice is terrible -- pushed into hummocks, etched with fissures, cobbled and pocked -- but who cares. How many people can say they've ice skated from Maryland to Virginia? My father took us across the first time. We were very cautious and would have turned back part way, my father tells me, except that another group was heading across at the same time. They must know what they are doing, he figured, so on we forged to the Virginia shore. The other group later thanked my father for, they said, without his leading the way, they would never have gone across.

Since then we have skated across two other years, the last year finding perfect ice just off the far shore. "Black ice," a Dutch gentleman told us, the result of a very fast freeze. It was jet black, utterly smooth, unscratched ice. We held out our coats like sails and were blown soundlessly up stream.