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Ice fishermen and women skimming slush with slotted ladles from their holes on Little Elk Lake near Zimmerman. Curlers on St. Paul's Selby Avenue pumping their brooms as skips shout "Sweep!" and hunks of granite glide into place.
Besides a sense of hearty camaraderie and the sniffing chorus of runny noses, something else binds all these divergent winter frolickers.
As relationships go, it's both frosty and intimate, exhilarating and exhausting. It slides us back with a nostalgic jolt to memories sharp and crisp. Yet we often take it for granted, struggling to gain traction.
"Ice forever fascinates me from so many fronts, and our affinity for it is just part of who we are in this cold land," says Ann Bancroft. "We have the gift of tremendous amounts of waterways that provide us so much winter recreation."
The polar explorer, who will return to Antarctica for 80 days on ice this fall, is now content to walk down from her Scandia home each morning to commune with the semi-frozen water of the St. Croix River.
She breathes deeply, notices the subtle geese scrawl, the fox tracks and the place where someone had dinner the night before. She longs for a cold snap that will allow her to cross over and hike and ski amid Wisconsin bluffs. If only the ice were thick enough.
"It's a surface that tells a story, that makes its own noises of popping and pinging and has a lot of mystique," she says. "Every day is a little different, ever changing, and we've learned to have fun in these long stretches of winter and not take ourselves too seriously."
At Christmas time, she longed for a plush white blanket. "But this dreaded lack of snow came with a silver lining," she says. The snow-free ice was perfect at her parents' home on Sunfish Lake as nieces, nephews and siblings laced up and "skated all night long on a dark, dark night, up and down the lake."
Ice, by its very nature, is fleeting.
"It's not going to last, so on those few perfect nights of clear ice, you go until you can't go anymore," says Bancroft, 56. "We're always cramming these stories down the kids' throats of when we were kids. Well, they lived it that night and a little bit of us was reborn. Ice will do that for ya."
• • •
Sometimes you need an estate lawyer from Pebble Beach, Calif. If not for sound legal counsel, then at least to put ice in perspective.
Kyle Krasa, 32, grew up playing roller hockey in his California driveway. He went to college in Vermont, but was afraid to play hockey because everyone was too good. Yet his late grandfather's stories resonated with him. Karel Krasa, a Czech diplomat, would tickle his grandson with memories of hockey on frozen ponds, played with branches as sticks and tennis balls as pucks.
The nearest ice arena is more than an hour from his home near Monterey, but Kyle enrolled in a beginners hockey league. He learned about Minnesota's annual pond hockey tournament on the Internet. Unable to lure his teammates to visit a Minnesota winter, he signed up and made the pilgrimage.
Last month he stood alone, eyes wide, as truck drivers, teachers and pilots shoveled off the two dozen rinks and skated, the sound of pucks banging off wooden stick blades blending with staccato bursts of steel blades scratching the ice. As Krasa waited to meet teammates from Iowa and Kansas City, he smiled.
"This is the perfect winter experience that so many people say reminds them of when they were kids."
• • •
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman effortlessly conjures up memories of his neighbor's sloping backyard, specifically the Crocus Hill lot at Grotto Street and Linwood Avenue.
"It was terraced with a big concrete gulag dividing wall -- about half the size of this room," Coleman says, gazing at his birch-paneled office in City Hall.
When a thaw melted the ice just right and then it refroze, a rink would almost magically appear and 10 kids would cram onto the compact ice slab and crash each other into the concrete wall.
When he had two little kids of his own, Coleman would work the hose and shovels, trying to groom his sloped backyard on the West Side bluffs.
"It would get this Mammoth Hot Springs effect until all of a sudden, one day you'd come out and things would have melted and frozen just right and it was like a piece of art," he says.
He laughs at memories of 80,000-plus people turning out this winter to watch a crash-ice event featuring skaters snaking down a topsy-turvy course from the Cathedral of St. Paul.
"What's the alternative? We have six months of winter, so you either embrace and enjoy it or sit inside, miserable."
• • •
Up on Little Elk Lake, dozens of folks have forked out $11 apiece to enter an ice fishing contest that will award cash prizes to the biggest and smallest walleyes, northern and crappies caught before 3 p.m.
Knock on the door of Jesse and Monica Schumacher's icehouse, built from scavenged materials including nice windows and paneling, and they not only welcome you in, but offer the true sign of Minnesota hospitality.
"There's a roll of toilet paper up on the shelf if you want to wipe your nose," Monica says graciously.
They've left their 10-month-old with grandparents and hired a sitter to watch their two older children. "It's something to do that isn't inside," Monica says. "It makes the winter go quicker if you have some fun and get away from your worries, and maybe we'll get lucky."
Jesse's sonar shows an orange blip between the bright band of light that signifies the lake bottom and the flash that represents his minnow on a jig. All is quiet, but no luck.
"They just don't want to hit," he says, with a shrug that shows it doesn't really matter.
• • •
Mark Seeley has studied the weather, and the ice, for more than three decades as a climatologist and meteorologist with the University of Minnesota.
He flashes back with ease to the winter of 1978-79 when wind blew the bays at Lake Como free and clear of snow. With sunlight causing just the right melt, flowerlike shapes appeared embedded in the ice. Seeley says they're called Tyndall flowers, named after John Tyndall, a British scientist who studied the phenomenon.
Seeley proves that not all Minnesotans' relationship with ice involves zooming quickly over its surface.
"But we do relish these opportunities to go out and see how fast we can go," Seeley says. "Culturally, there's a little macho dimension. Mother Nature is going to give us some good shots of winter. And yet we go out and enjoy it. We fish or sled or ski on the ice."
It's the classic people vs. nature showdown, he says. "And quite frankly, we take great pride in overcoming it."
• • •
I mince my steps to keep my balance on a slippery stretch of cracks and bulges. I can't smell anything and the lake lacks color. There's only the sound of boots on ice -- scrunch, scrunch -- and the whistle of wind.
I recall the story a lodge owner shared up on Elephant Lake last winter: As a girl, she skated out after Thanksgiving and the ice was so clear, she caught a glimpse of a perch, gills puffing, trapped beneath the frozen shelf. She ran inside, grabbed an ax and scooped up the perch, which now hangs stuffed on the knotty-pine dining-room wall.
Onward I scrunch, heading toward my car on the far lakeshore, slowing my measured steps just enough to pull out the bundle of toilet paper in my pocket -- a gift from an ice house denizen, her shack shrinking back over my shoulder in the faint winter light.