NCPR: The magic of wild ice skating on Lower Cascade Lake in the Adirondacks

Student ice skating on the lake.

By Amy Feiereisel
Posted: February 23, 2024

KEENE — The right conditions for outdoor ice skating are tricky, but when the weather aligns, it’s pure magic.

A recent thaw followed by several days of below-freezing temperatures has transformed the Cascade Lakes, between Lake Placid and Keene, into huge, natural skating rinks.

From the shores of the Lower Cascade Lake, I spotted two men skating tight circles in and around boulders near the lake’s eastern edge. They were using ski poles for extra balance, but Perry Babcock told me, “Normally we would carry hockey sticks!”

“Today was a skating day,” explained Greg Dennin. Perry Babcock and Greg Dennin are both 67 years old. As children, they played hockey together in Lake Placid. All these years later, they’re still playing. “It makes you feel like a kid all over again, so it’s good stuff,” said Dennin.

Lower Cascade Lake runs east to west. It’s skinny, about a mile long, with mountains on either side. Dennin and Babcock have been skating this body of water for decades. One of the reasons they came to skate was to scout the ice out for a locals’ hockey game, Lake Placid versus Keene Valley.

“We have a very strong rivalry with our friends from Keene Valley,” said Babcock. “They’re called the Beavers. And we’re the Lake Placid Bombers.” Dennin chimed in, “The Bombers always win. That’s important!”

“If nothing else comes out of this, the Bombers always beat the Beavers,” laughed Babcock.

This winter’s skating windows have been brief, and fleeting, with thaw after thaw after thaw. That’s different from what these two men grew up with.

Dennin has memories of months of thick ice when he was a kid in the 1960s. He said he particularly remembers the week of Christmas, practically “living on Mirror Lake, and skating, and the toboggan slide would be open. So, you know, as far as the length of the season, there’s just no question [that it’s shorter],” he said.

But still, they’re lucky, said Babcock. “We’re still high enough in elevation up here in the Adirondacks” to get snow and ice and freezing temperatures. “I grew up downstate and all the ponds skating down there is gone. The ponds just don’t freeze anymore. So up here we’re still lucky to have it,” said Babcock.

Not long after Babcock and Dennin pack up, a group of kids arrived. They made the short trip from North Country School, which is just down the road. Their teacher, Sierra Grennan, said they had to seize the moment.

For good skating “you need perfect conditions,” said Grennan. “You need to have really cold weather after not having a lot of snow so you can get this like perfect flat ice. And there wasn’t wind when it was forming, so it’s smooth and beautiful.”

They have a small skating rink at the school, nothing compares to a whole lake, said Grennan, “and there’s something different about just seeing the frozen waterfalls and being surrounded on both sides by mountains, that makes it more special.”

Some of the kids move cautiously, but others skate with wild abandon: fast, backwards.

A few of the kids brought along hockey sticks and pucks, including a middle schooler named Ziggy Moore.

“I’ve skated since like the age of like three, four,” Moore told me. “I’ve grown up doing a lot of pond hockey with my dad and brother.” This was Moore’s first time skating on the Cascade Lakes, but “definitely not the last,” said Moore. “Ice is like the best I’ve ever skated on outside of a rink!”

Moore’s classmate, Ivy, had a loping grace as she skated in big circles.  She stopped to show me her white figure skates. “They have like a toe pick, and they’re used like more for tricks than hockey.”

This was also Ivy’s first time here, and was just as fascinated by the ice’s surface as I was: silver and black, crisscrossed by cracks, and in some places, totally clear. “It’s really cool. It’s very, it’s really flat. I thought it was gonna be a lot bumpier!’ she said.

Everyone I met on the ice was wearing hockey or figure skates, except for Nancie Battaglia, the prolific Adirondack photographer, who I first saw gliding at the far, western end of the lake. She was making big, graceful strides, in ski boots attached to long pieces of wood and metal blade.

She explained they’re called ‘nordic blades’, and that she’s had hers for over thirty years. Battaglia said they’re great for in-the-wild skating. “You’re able to handle the lumpy bumpies a little bit better than the shorter blades. You can go pretty quick.”

Battaglia is an ice chaser; she’s part of a group of folks who are always looking for ice and reporting back to each other.

“And this is one of the places that was reported good,” explained Battaglia. But after it snowed, she figured she might have missed the window. Then she happened to be driving by and realized, “Well there is no snow on it, it’s been blown off!”

Battaglia leaves most of her winter gear in her car, so she can take advantage of whatever opportunities mother nature offers up.

She moved with confidence and grace on the ice, and led me to a particularly clear and dark piece of ice, where you could see tiny air bubbles frozen in over a foot of clear ice.

“It almost looks like balloons,” said Battaglia. “Instead of going up layers of balloons, it’s you know, it’s bubbles going down.”

As we skated west, towards the setting sun, the ice gets blacker, glossier, and the bubbles bigger. There was no telling what conditions would be like the next day, so we savored every moment on the ice.

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2024-02-27T21:00:23+00:00NCS Happenings|

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