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Sunday, January 25, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Mostly Cloudy and Breezy
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The ice rinks cometh: Skating is more than the sum of its parts

Credit:Peter Patau

Some of us watch the lakes all summer for sunsets. Others watch the lakes all winter for ice. We love skating.

For one thing, it instantly makes me three inches taller. For another, it's the only time I truly feel graceful. The rest of the year I might trip on curbs or knock my head on cabinet doors, but when there's ice, I'm doing ballet. In my head, at least.

It's not just me. People who in summer consider algae to be a sign of the apocalypse suddenly flock to the lakes, transforming from autumnal caterpillars to winter butterflies. They dance across the surface: toddlers on double-bladed strap-ons, mad teens with hockey sticks, old codgers making long, lazy strides, leaning way down, a wrist held on their backs.

The rinks have been opening one by one. It seemed unlikely three weeks ago, when I surveyed the lagoon at Tenney Park. It was posted "THIN ICE," but really, the ice was so slight that a better sign would have been "THICK WATER." For 15 minutes I watched four muskrats pop in and out of a hole in the middle. How did they know where the opening was, or at least where the ice wasn't? A few days later it was all open again.

There are year-round indoor rinks. They are to skating what porn is to love. They get the job done, but there's no emotion. How can that compare, for example, to skating at the lagoon in Vilas Park, where you might launch yourself up a snow bank to let the goats in the children's zoo lick your mittens?

I confess to being slightly mad when it comes to skating. In college I would cut down by the UW lakeshore dorms and skate to class. One year I made a failed attempt to skate the circumference of each lake. But then I come from a long line of skaters.

My dad grew up skating on the sloughs of the Mississippi in west-central Wisconsin. So did my grandfather, who taught me the various kinds of ice.

As you might guess, "milk ice" is white. It contains lots of small air bubbles and might be unsafe. If the water level beneath the ice drops, along the edges you get gentle ripples of "rubber ice."

The best ice of all is "black ice" - pure, solid, like looking through glass.

From my grandfather I also learned a trick. If it's a clear night and there's a good moon, once the rink lights go out, lie down on your stomach.

Make a cup of your gloves and look down into the ice. It collects the moonlight. You'll be able to see it glow.

As do we all - when skating.

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