This weekend just gone brought another of the now quite familiar “I am VERY far from home” moments. Back in February, a student in a suburb to the north of the city cancelled her lesson when I was already on the tram there. I decided to stay on and take a stroll by the lake, or rather, reservoir. It was a ghost-, erm, reservoir, mostly deserted, the pubs closed and shuttered. To my surprise, the water had partly frozen over – there was a metre-wide lead of open water between the shore and a large floating ice-mass. I didn’t realise it had been that cold; the ponds outside work only occasionally froze over last winter.
This winter has been considerably colder. Last weekend, it was floating around -9º to -6º, dipping down to -13º at night. I don’t think temperatures have got as high as zero yet this year, and it’s snowed several times. There was a white Christmas in Brno – when I was in the Isle of Man, naturally – and that’s the first in several years.
But last week there were several days of bitter cold – down to well under 10º below – and it snowed twice. Friends told me that they were going up to the dam to skate. This hadn’t occurred to me, but there is an official test and the ice thickness is over 15cm – 19cm in places – and it was officially declared safe to use. Apparently, this is fairly normal.
“I wish I could skate, but I can’t,” I protested.
“Then go ski on it. You’ve told us you do cross-country skiing.”
“But… you can’t ski on ice.”
“Liam.” I got one of those occasional Central European pitying looks, as given to particularly dense Brits. (At least, I fervently hope other Brits and travellers from distant lands get them.) “It has been snowing. The ice is covered in snow.”
This quite simply had not occurred to me. I mean, I’ve seen what happens when snow falls on ponds, lakes, rivers, the sea and whatnot. It melts straight in. One feels that one knows what lakes do. Everywhere has lakes, right. Even deserts have oases.
But not if the lake has completely frozen over and the ice is thick enough to walk on, no. The normal rules no longer apply.
So on Saturday, I went up for a look. My local number three tram goes straight there. It was bitterly cold – about -8º -- but a big crowd surged off the tram, from grannies to families. (Not just lean wiry winter athletes being the general impression I’m trying to convey here.) As I trudged through the snow down the approach road to the water, the view in the distance gave me a feeling of alienation. Instead of a small dark triangle of water, it was gleaming white, brighter than the louring grey sky.
And it was covered in people. Tiny dark figures. Moving. Sporting. It’s the only word. Disporting themselves on the ice. It was straight out of that Pieter Breughel painting. You know the one.
I walked around the shore a bit, marvelling. There were a thousand-odd people out on the ice. Skating – I didn’t know you could skate through snow, but it was becoming rapidly apparent that I didn’t know much at all about situations like this. Skiing. Parents towing kids on sledges.
I walked down the shore and out onto the ice, where I met a friend of mine, Gabriel.
(Disconcertingly, Czechs pronounce the male version of this name pretty much as “Gabrielle” but I just call him Gabe.)
He and his friends had cleared an area and made a berm and were energetically building up some speed on their skates then throwing themselves into the berm, for no readily apparent reason. Gabe does parkour. Traceurs seem to throw themselves at the scenery for the sheer fun of it. We chatted. I tried to convey how strange and disorienting this was for me. Entire substantial lakes don’t just turn solid in my experience, in much the same way that houses don’t walk around and mountains don’t take to the wing and migrate. I mean, yes, African childhood and all that, but this business of the ground being solid water and brighter than the sky. I’m not sure I got this across.
I walked on, marvelling. I was walking – very carefully and a little gingerly – on a lake! Standing over tens of meters of dark icy water without the aid of either a boat or divine intervention. Me and a fair proportion of the city. Sections of snow had been cleared, circuits for speed skating, mini rinks for ice hockey, a particular national passion round here.
Here I was, in my fiftieth year, walking on a frozen lake for the first time. I have of course long been aware that lakes do this in extreme latitudes – Siberia, northern Canada and Alaska and so on. I was completely unaware that for three winters I’ve been living in a place where this is normal, expected behaviour.
When the lake ice is thick enough, it becomes a major amenity again. There were hordes of locals. I saw parents pushing prams. Tiny tots on skates or skis. Oldsters walking with sticks. Lots of ice hockey. There was even a maniac cycling across the lake. (I am told there’s a warning in place that it’s not thick enough to drive on. Well, that’s reassuring.)
I walked for an hour, until it dusk was progressing a little far for comfort and the temperature started to feel like it might slip into the wrong kind of double digits.
My determination now reinforced, I stomped up to the tram stop and headed for the place where my stuff from London is stored. I made a concerted, hour-and-a-half effort to find my cross-country ski boots. I’ve had the skis here for two years, but they’re useless without the special boots whose toes clip onto the skis. I’ve looked for the boots repeatedly, both when the boxes were in London and now here, with no joy.
I found them in a box labelled “BOOTS”, which it must be said was not conspicuous compared to the hundred-odd other boxes, most of which are labelled “BOOKS”. But I had them.
I emerged triumphant if dust-covered, and adjourned to the pub for a friend’s leaving do. (Goodbye, Zuszka!) And then another pub. But, remarkably, I was the first to leave the survivors’ party, so determined was I to ski.
On Sunday I was a tad hungover, but a breakfast of warmed-up leftover curry, half a litre of coffee and a litre of tea soon fixed that. Leaving the hour-long process of getting togged up for outdoors sporting activity when it’s about -6º and you haven’t done it for about 3 years.
Ungainly, all right, even more ungainly than usual in my ski boots, I stomped down to the tram stop, as ever feeling rather conspicuous carrying a pair of nearly-two-metre-long skis and poles. But on the tram was another person with a pair of, well, slightly newer but otherwise very similar skis.
We debarked at the stop for the docks and I hesitantly stomped down to the waterside. There’s no intentional access provided – you have to climb over a barrier, which I didn’t fancy, so I walked around the lake again, noting the many people carrying skis. Most of them septuagenarian, by the looks of them, which did make me feel a tad less athletic.
I found a sloping section of shore, picked my way down very carefully – there are logs and over flotsam under the snow – and walked out onto the ice. Not that you can see any ice, of course. The snow just slopes down to the lake and then flattens out. You can’t tell where the land ends and the ice begins. I clipped into the skis and nervously set out.
It’s not unlike skiing on land, but it’s not the same. The skis move laterally much more easily, and your poles won’t bite in. There was 4-5cm or more of snow, after a new fall overnight, but while it’s enough to anchor the poles, they won’t take much pressure. But I was underway, nervously, very carefully, but gathering speed. It works much the same, but you can be pleasantly secure that you’re not going to unexpectedly find yourself on a downhill bit – which unfailingly means I fall immediately and heavily on my arse.
As I got a bit more confident and the movements came back to me – and as I saw more and more other skiers, making me feel less awkward – I left the main bulk of the crowd, very loosely clustered around the pubs and bars at the end of the lake near the dam, and headed upstream, where the lake gradually narrows. I kept it going for about an hour, occasionally stopping for a sip of water – I was working hard – and to remove a layer of insulation, until a concealed, formerly-floating log knocked me down, a couple of kilometres along the lake. I went for a sit down to catch my breath, which fairly soon reminded me that it was still well below freezing point.
So I set off back. Now, I had a bit more speed, but a lot less strength left. This was my first go since the last heavy snowfall in London, and I don’t recall when that was. My normal venue was Wimbledon Common. Zooming – OK, OK, moving at slightly more than a brisk walking pace – across the ice of a central European lake, forested hills on all sides, clear clean ice-cold air in my lungs. All very invigorating, but not actually invigorating enough to overcome my growing fatigue. I had gone a bit too far for a first go, and now I had another two plus kilometres to go to get back. It was an effort, but I made it, albeit tired enough that when I got to the end, I didn’t recognise where I was – it’s an unfamiliar view, after all; I’ve only crossed the lake by boat once – and had to stop and consult Google Maps. I then realised that I was back. I tried to ski across the last few dozen metres to the shore, but so many people had walked around this part, the snow was a thin crust of churned slush, liberally mixed with Czech industrial-grade anti-slip compounds from their boots. I unclipped, walked back – now very much more confident than before – and went to the pub for a restorative hot chocolate and a mulled wine.
So a day after walking on my first frozen lake, I felt rather that I’d conquered it. My skills on XC skis are very poor, but it’s probably the most confident I feel on snow. Sadly, this week’s weather has been extreme by the standards of recent winters, so I probably won’t get many more opportunities to do this. If there’s more snow, which is still fairly likely, it’ll be back to snowboarding in the local park. But a remarkable experience all the same.
As the temperature’s gone up to a relatively balmy -5º or so, between other errands, today I dropped by the business park where my old office is located, hoping to feed the ducks. Except that the duck-ponds have frozen solid, and the ducks have decamped to the river Svratka nearby, so I stood on the bridge and threw the bread down at them. They soon noticed and gathered -- but so, unexpectedly, did some seagulls. I rather miss seagulls here, 1000km from the sea. But these weren't Britain's typical burly herring gulls or black-backed gulls, but some far smaller and more slender, mostly white birds with pale grey wings and flecks of grey in their plumage. Perhaps some kind of tern, I don’t know.
It was chilly work standing there tearing up M&S naan bread and throwing it down, and it was so cold, I was worried it might freeze as solid as a rock on the way and concuss passing waterfowl.
But then, I always like to leave no tern unstoned.