Nice Ice

February 3, 2022

This thumb-sucker originally appeared in The Globe and Mail, Jan. 22, 2022

Canadians have a love-hate relationship with cold. The media bombard us with warnings about global warming and the cataclysm that will befall Earth unless we do something to stop warming the planet. Then, all winter weather reporters on the same TV and radio stations bemoan low temperatures and cheer warmer days.

I have the opposite outlook. Starting in December I study the thermometer outside the kitchen window every morning, praying to the gods for cold, so that the pond will freeze. “The pond” refers to Grenadier Pond, in fact a small lake. It’s a rare oasis of natural beauty in the heart of Toronto, stretching more than a kilometre through one of Toronto’s biggest parks, High Park, much of which was transferredinto city hands in 1873 by architect John Howard.

Our kids spent quality time on High Park’s frozen pond long before they could skate – or even walk. I’d bundle them, as infants, in snowsuits and take them, and the dog, to the pond, lace up my skates on the bank and fly out onto the glorious ice, tugging one or more children behind me on a plastic sled.

Around us, impromptu hockey games began, with boots for goals. Figure skaters twirled and leapt. Speed skaters leaned into the wind, their hands clasped behind their backs. New immigrants braved their first natural ice. They laughed, wobbled, took photos. There is room for everyone. After a snow, everyone brings a shovel.

Local weather reports describe cold as a threat. At noon on Jan. 15, CBC Radio Toronto warned: “Wind chill will make it feel like -33. Risk of frostbite. If it’s too cold for you, it’s too cold for your pet.” (Call the army!) One hopes weather reporters in Winnipeg don’t insult the intelligence of their listeners in this way. For me, better counsel is: “Bundle up.”

Along with dire warnings about the cold, another force discourages winter fun: municipal bureaucrats. To get to the pond, one must pass signs posted by the City of Toronto that read: “No Skating. No Access.” My friends and I have learned to ignore these annual interdictions; since I settled in Toronto in the mid 1990s, I have skated every winter on the pond. Both our kids skated there for years, without incident; my daughter only stopped after her figure skating coach scolded her that natural ice dulls skate blades. None of us ever fell through the ice. All you need is long johns and common sense. And never skate alone.

The first half of January offered rare, perfect conditions for skaters: lots of cold and little snow. On Saturday, January 8, Richard Sanger, a Toronto playwright and poet who grew up in Ottawa and shares my love of natural ice, joined me; we rode our bikes to the park and sat on a log to lace up. Richard has even expressed his affection for the pond in a poem, which composer Juliet Palmer, a fellow pond enthusiast, set to music. On the city’s flagpole by the pond fluttered a red banner, which means, “no skating.” We glided across a flawless kilometre of glass. The weather then warmed, so I stayed off the pond; on Jan. 11 a couple fell through the ice near the east shore, where beavers have recently built a lodge. (The skaters got out okay.) The beavers probably roiled up the water around their lodge, which leaves the ice thinner at that spot.

Richard and I returned the next day; a yellow flag fluttered, meaning, “skate at your own risk.” And we also found, on the ice, three-metre long thin red poles expertly inserted in holes drilled at intervals around the perimeter of the beaver pond area, apparently to tell skaters to steer clear of that section.

The yellow flag, red poles and “No Skating” signs send a mixed message. I offer a clear message: It is winter. It is cold. This is something to celebrate. Pandemic closed your gym? Pond is open. Carpe glacies (seize the ice). If we want our kids to fight climate change, to enlist for the Herculean societal shifts we will require to cut carbon emissions, we must remind them why winter is so great: because it brings us snow and cold that freezes ponds, lakes and rivers.

Cold is what we do in this country. The expertise in skiing, hockey, figure skating, speed-skating and curling that Canadians will show the world in Beijing at the Olympics next month has, at its roots, the sports we have perfected to enjoy winter. China apparently plans to use 200 million litres of water to make snow in Yanqing, for downhill skiing, and Zhangjiakou, for cross-country skiing; here at home we have plenty of the natural stuff.

On the farm where I grew up, in western Quebec, our neighbours, the St. Denis family, had a daughter and eight sons. In late fall our neighbours erected a rink-shaped rectangle of plywood boards in a field beside their house, and flooded the ground at night. I learned to skate on that ice. When it snowed, we shovelled it off. I skated on rivers and ponds and the Rideau Canal in Ottawa; I never set blade on artificial ice until I left home. Richard Sanger notes that “my friends who skate on Grenadier Pond come from Ottawa.” Probably because they are used to natural ice, I suggested. “Yes,” he said, “and they don’t mind the cold.”

Torontonians have skated on Grenadier Pond for more than a century. The city ran a program until 2001 to look after the ice: drill holes, pump pond water into hoses, and flood the surface at night, as workers do on the Rideau Canal and Montreal’s Parc La Fontaine. The City of Toronto brought in pond monitoring in 2017, and city officials say that program continues. The ice on Grenadier Pond isn’t maintained and snow isn’t cleared, but the area defined by the red poles is tested to see if the ice is “not safe for skating” (red flag) or “use at own risk” (yellow flag), with the daily status available online.

Skating on the pond the other day we met Scott Morgan, who has lived since 1950 on the cliff above its west bank. He learned to skate on the pond at age three; as a boy, he fell through the ice twice. Unperturbed, every winter he walks down the hill and skates on the pond. He wore vintage Daoust hockey skates, the blades attached to the boots with steel posts. He knows what he is doing, and yet a police officer told everyone to get off the pond on Saturday, he said. In the past, he says, thousands would throng the pond. “I wish they would get on the radio and tell people to come,” he said. He loves the exercise.

On another part of the pond’s west side we met a guy in boots, walking on the ice to hang a string of lights on bushes that hang over the shore. “It’s to give the kids some light when they play shinny at night,” he said.

Richard Sanger has battled cancer for a year. He lives life to the fullest every day he has left. Right now, that includes skating on the pond every day it is safe. The ice on the pond is a lot like life – fragile and fleeting. It doesn’t last. Let’s enjoy this vast expanse of glory every chance we get.

Photos: Top, Peter Kuitenbrouwer on Grenadier Pond, Toronto, Jan. 12, 2022. Middle: skaters on the pond. Bottom: Richard Sanger shoots left and has a nice hat. Photos by Peter Kuitenbrouwer