When I first wrote last New Year's, I really had no idea what winter had in store for us here. The two weeks leading up to the new year were unseasonably warm, so even though we walked onto the ice once or twice early on before it softened, and even though there was a smattering of snow that quickly disappeared, the real show took place on long weekends in January and February, after the northeast went into a deep freeze that felt to me like the coldest winter since my childhood. The lake froze twenty inches thick, according to the ice fishermen. "You could drive a truck across here," one said. The kids just loved the concept of being able to walk freely over the surface, after learning over the summers how hard it was to row or swim across.
We got some sleds and at first pulled them over the ice, but though they liked it, it was too hard for the adults. Then we discovered the tube run over by the clubhouse. Not much a run, not compared to snow tubing at ski resorts, but the club had lined it with bales of hay, strategically placed a couple of bumps in the middle of it, and the frozen lake allowed additional slide at the end of the run. Stella was a hoot, age three, bundled up in parka and polka dot hat with pom poms matting down her endless ringlets, her scarf gift-wrapping the whole ensemble, brazenly skimming down the slope, over the bumps, onto the ice, while kids twice her age quaked in their boots.
I got some excellent skating in when I could, no small task with snow covering the lake. One day, after the first snowfall, the wind blew most of the powder off the ice, leaving swirls that forced me to snake my way around them and through them. With a stick and a puck, it proved to be the best stickhandling practice I could imagine, by necessity watching out for snow patches rather than looking at the puck, and having to weave back and forth through them at the same time. Another time, after a larger snowfall, I shoveled out a small rink -- too small as it turned out, and retrieving the puck when I shot it out onto the snow was a pain, but again it proved to be great practice, having to control the puck in such a tight space while making tight turns.
Indoors was cozy with the fires I built. Sitting on the weird circular orange chair, vintage 1960s, by the picture window in the dining room was a great way to spend time -- looking through the bare trees out toward the lake, reading, curling up with Stella, watching the birds frequent the feeder that hung four inches from the other side of the pane (chickadees, junkos, cardinals, jays, finches, tufted titmouses, even a woodpecker).
For Ellen, this place is more about interiors than the outdoors, the deck being her favorite perch for observing the outside world. That and the car -- unlike New York, one has to drive everywhere, even to pick up a bottle of milk or a fat free French vanilla cappuccino at Wawa. And with movie theaters thirty to forty-five minutes away, video rentals must suffice. But we've found the perfect outlet for that -- we obsessively rent each season of 24 and Alias as they are released, watching as many consecutive episodes as we can from the edge of our seats, where they force us to sit with their relentless suspense.
This winter break has been more of the same, the deep freeze kicking in earlier than last year. The lake was frozen when we got here, the mercury having topped out at 12 that day and dropped well below zero that night. It softened up dramatically when the atmosphere warmed up and wrung an inch and a half of rain on us. But then it went right back down below freezing and has stayed there, so within days we were back out onto the ice (six inches, said the ice fishermen). Full moon at night out on the lake -- awesome!
Snow has dogged my skating, though. I tested the ice 36 hours after the rains -- it was black and glassy, but still too thin. At 48 hours, after dark, we were able to go out on it safely, and I knew it would be great skating the next morning. But two inches fell overnight. I still had a good time out there with the kids, but I couldn't skate. Then a brisk wind kicked in and like last year blew much of the snow away, leaving black ice feathered by white patches, perfect for stickhandling alone.
I had the kids out that morning, then they went off to the movies with Mom. Before skating, I chopped some wood and took it in, so that it would have time to reach room temperature before I fired it up. By the time I was done, it had started to snow again! Not much fell, but it was enough to lay a white sheen over the open areas of the ice. I managed to get an hour of skating and stickhandling in all the same, but it was tough pushing that thin layer of snow around with a stick and a puck, then the snow was too thick to continue.
One finds it hard to imagine summer during the middle of this kind of cold snap. Though I manage to spend a ton of time outdoors in the winter -- on the lake, chopping wood, taking out the dog we're taking care of for three weeks -- summertime is such a care-free time for going in and out, whether for boating or swimming, or just hanging out on the deck grilling or reading.
Last summer was a big summer for boating. First I got a pair of kayaks, a solo and a tandem (with a jump seat for young children). I figured I'd have to take Sophie out in the tandem (with Stella in the jump seat) while someone else used the solo. But Sophie decided during her first ride to instantly master the kayak. The pleasure of seeing a kid -- once afraid to try anything new or anything at all that required physical activity -- take so quickly to a new activity requiring physical acumen and stamina was enormous.
The day she mastered the kayak, I took her out at dusk, me alone in the tandem, her in the solo. I had discovered that sunset was the best time -- the water was still as glass, mirroring the trees and rhododendrons that line the shore, the sunsets were gorgeous, and the wildlife emerged. I discovered a beaver and tracked it across the lake to its feeding spot, so when I took Sophie out that evening we went right there and spotted it again. The dang critter took down three beautiful young birches that were growing at the end of one of our points, but still it was fun tracking it across the lake and around the islands.
Then I got me a sailboat -- a Hobie Bravo, the smallest catamaran they make, its double hull moulded out of a single piece of whatever synthetic material they use. I only tipped it over twice, and the second time wasn't even my fault (not totally). I can't say that I exactly mastered it, but I went out every chance I could and got the hang of it. The boats were a great way to entertain the parade of visitors we had. Sophie loved to show off her solo kayaking skills when her friends came up -- they had to ride with me while she paddled on her own. I was able to show off the sail boat -- and then had to hide my embarrassment when the wind died down and I couldn't figure out how to get it back in!
I made the mistake of trying to take up golf at the same time -- two new obsessive activities on top of all the old ones (I still went back to New York once or twice a week to play hockey all summer!). While the boat was always accessible, depending on wind conditions (not too much, not too little), golf was a problem -- as a beginner, I didn't want to just go out on the course, get thrown into a random foursome, and then force them to deal with me when they had innocently thought they would have themselves a nice golf outing. So I went to the driving range all summer to try to harness my slap shot into a golf shot, and was able to do it fairly well.
The time finally came when my sister and brother-in-law, golfers both, came to visit. I arranged a tee time at a time I knew there would be no fourth, and shot my first round of nine holes. Well, with all that practice I was able to drive the ball a fair distance, but what I hadn't taken into account was how many finesse shots would be required -- I swung through many shots and shot over the green by a mile. On the other hand, sand traps were a piece of cake, having to hit the sand two inches behind the ball -- exactly what you do when taking a slap shot in hockey.
I thought I was embarrassing myself out there, but they reminded me how badly they felt about the way they played, which for them was not the first time. One area I did not embarrass myself in was grilling. My salmon was already legendary, if I do say so myself (and I don't like salmon, so I don't even eat it myself!), and the prior summer I had (with the help of a book) finally perfected tuna and baked potatoes. This summer, I expanded my repertoire by learning at long last how to properly grill shrimp, grill veggies, and grill corn, plus I found a simple recipe for an awesome marmalade-mustard marinade that everyone went ga-ga over and which made soft white fish work on the grill for the first time (coincidentally, I first tried it on orange roughy).
Meanwhile, through all this, Stella, in the months leading up to her fourth birthday, continued her assault on the 2020 Olympic swim team, unbeknownst to her as of yet. She had already caused a stir at the Y all winter and spring by breaking the mold they adhere to in matching age and skill level. Now she was vexing the lifeguards at the Lake Naomi and Timber Trails pools by swimming up a storm for someone so small (she can swim all the way across the pool at the deep end, can jump off the diving board and swim in, and can sort of dive).
The in-between seasons proved to be an unexpected contrast. Spring, the season we all love so much in the city, is just mud season up here. It's still too cold to be outdoors all the time, outdoors is too wet and muddy anyway, and without the outdoors there isn't enough to do to keep the kids busy. Spring break, we found out, is the ideal time to go somewhere else on vacation.
Fall on the other hand, despite the shorter days and brisker weather, is a joy. The colors are amazing, being in an area that is really still a vast deciduous forest, despite all the development that has taken place. And it's dry, so as long as you keep yourself busy you can stay outside. My wife couldn't understand why I spent hours and hours one afternoon picking up dead wood in the back yard, loading it up in a wheelbarrow, and wheeling it into the garage. Sure, I needed kindling for the fire for the winter (I got caught short last winter), but mostly it was a way to keep busy and keep warm while staying outside on a gorgeous but just a bit too cool of a day. I've maitained that tactic even in the coldest of winter days by chopping wood.
Autumn also brought our second (now annual) Thanksgiving weekend, with the same group of twenty-four (twelve adults and their twelve kids -- it was actually twenty-five this year, one kid having brought a friend). Some people stay with us, some stay at a nearby hotel that has a pool, and between the two locales we party up a storm all weekend long. Among a group of friends that have often been contentious, the house and lake, whether it be over Thanksgiving or during the summer when many of the same people visit, have brought people closer together with their magical karma.
This year's winter break is almost over. As I write, we have one full day left. A visiting family has just left after a morning of horseback riding and an afternoon tubing at Camelback (there was not enough snow here at the clubhouse -- a shame, because tubing at Camelback was a rip-off and not worth the trouble). We will be going back to the city for New Year's this year, for a small party on the eve and a larger one the day after, rather than staying here.
Winter break at Lake Naomi has provided pleasant book-ends to an otherwise frustrating year -- an unconscionable election year in which homophobia won out over a devastating war, unabated terrorist threats, economic malaise, and possibly nascent fascism, andf in a small microcosmic way in the sport that I love, ice hockey, where greedy billionaire and near-billionaire owners have shut down the National Hockey League in a blatant money grab while making fans believe the players were stealing bread out of their starving babies' mouths.
Hopefully next year the time spent here will be more than a silver lining while waiting for the other shoe to drop, though at the moment there is no justification for that hope. Oh well -- if we correct the drainage problems in the basement, then along with the new furnace and new water filtration system we put in and the new dock going in next spring, at least our house will be in good working order, even if others aren't.