Ice Lemon

from Tales from the Red Pump 
Pages 113-116

     Upper St. Croix Lake was a frozen mirror on December 9, 2006.  It was already 3 pm that sunny, cold day, and I knew the light would fade soon.  At this latitude in December, we have usable sunlight for lake skating only until about 5 pm, depending on cloud cover.  I finished my work for the day, and decided a long-distance skate on our seven-mile lake would be perfect.  The lake ice here had frozen and firmed up a week before, and I checked it for safety earlier that day.  No snow had fallen that late autumn, so the lake surface was a brilliant sheet of wide-open, clean ice; an old hockey player’s private paradise, something rarely seen now in years of warmer winters.

     From our garage hockey equipment box, I grabbed my Bauer skates, hockey gloves, and one of my old banged-up, ragged-taped sticks.  Hadn’t used them in a year or more, and it sure felt good to be heading for a well-lit skate on the glassy lake.  With the total lack of snow in our area that year, the walk down to the lake bank was quick.  There, I sat on a big rock at the edge, tied on my skates, and put on my gloves.  I grabbed my stick, pushed off with my life-long skater’s legs, and power glided out on my smooth, personally reserved rink.  There was no one else around.  It felt sublime to stride strongly, and skim over the slick, bright surface in the sun.  I skated north about two miles in just a few  minutes, where the ice got rougher, then I turned around and headed back south to explore around the Island at the other end of the lake.

     In my rush to get out on the ice during sunlight, I forgot to bring a puck along to stick handle and pass as I skated up and down the lake.  Our puck bag, of many black, hard rubber discs and a few red-plastic street hockey balls, was underneath other gear in our box.  I neglected to grab it when I left.  Not a problem for us old-time outdoor hockey guys; I just skated around any loose chunk of ice, small stick, or pine cone I saw on the ice, scooped it in with my curved stick, and passed it on ahead to my imaginary team mates as I skated hard.  What fun, and what pure joy, to move nearly silently and effortlessly on a fast, friction free surface.  “Best skate ever,” I thought, even though I was alone on the lake.  I skated along briskly, enjoying the wind from my speed, the endless blue sky, and the open panorama of the lake and surrounding forests.  I was lost in my own exceptional early winter world.

     Hey, up ahead, a dot on the ice.  I skated up closer, and could see it was a faded yellow round thing.  A tennis ball?  Or had someone lost their street hockey ball or their driveway puck out here earlier?  Curious, I charged up closer, never guessing from a distance what it really was: a whole lemon, frozen solid.  How random: a loose lemon lying on the ice, hard as a rock, and faded from a bright grocery store yellow.  The story behind that was anyone’s guess.  Maybe it fell out of an ice fisherman’s cooler?  Maybe animals got it out of garbage near a lakeshore cabin? 

     Who knows?  Whatever its method of arrival on the lake, the lemon was exactly the missing “puck” I needed.  I skated fast now, in rapid bursts, and slapped it on ahead on the smooth ice, then raced to catch up to it.  I stick handled it forward and backward, in tight turns and long loops; I tried crazy behind-the-back and between-the-skates passes.  They all worked; I was so loose and relaxed.  My team of one was looking good.  If only I’d had a partner to pass to or been in a game that day, could I have shown them my old stuff.  I didn’t even have to worry about hitting ruts or holes during all my gyrations, because the surface was so clean and clear; almost like newly re-iced indoor skating. 

     In awhile, I was tired from all my tight turns, stops, and reversals of directions with my new lemon puck.  It was my first skate of the winter, so to slow it down a bit, I skated directly north, around the east side of Crownhart Island, then turned south at the Island’s northernmost tip to skate along the sunny west shoreline in the windbreak of the tall pines on the Island.  I cruised in a silent, pure world now, sending my ice lemon way out ahead of me, then chasing it, and shooting it out again, over and over. 

     My attention had been fully occupied for the last hour, up and down the lake, back and forth.  Now, suddenly, a moving shape came into peripheral view over my left shoulder, something moving casually, at about shoulder height and maybe just ten feet now to my left.  It was a large bald eagle coming slowly to my level, in full-spread glide pattern with wings at least seven feet across, tip to tip.  He, maybe she, floated in silently, about five feet off the ice, focused on the lemon out ahead of us about fifty feet.  The eagle held his glide pattern over the lemon, dropping to about three feet above the ice, then tipped his head down to look more closely at the yellow treasure as he passed above.  He gritted through a tight left banking power turn, not unlike what I had been doing on the ice surface.  Then he rose in the air, flew back around me, and came in again from north to south over the ice at about waist height, trying to get a closer look at this mysterious object. 

     I stopped and watched in amazement.  My silent lake partner repeated his close airborne inspections of the random thing on the ice at least three more times, trying to figure out what that wobbling, flopping, skidding, yellow object was:  Food, fish, unusual prey?  I can only wonder.  Then he flew off, disappearing in to the endless blue over the distant forests.  

     For a few moments, the Eagle and I were in a sunlit, clear world of curiosity that day on the ice.  We shared our joy of moving freely and effortlessly: him reveling in gliding, swooping, and turning in the air; me enjoying much the same on my glassy two-dimensional medium of polished, once-in-a-lifetime lake ice. 

     We both pursued a silly target that afternoon, and had some fun together.  I will never forget us both chasing that random lemon during on our shared St. Croix ice mirror adventure.  What an experience, and what a story.  I couldn’t make it up if I tried.  And, by the way, our ice lemon is still in a plastic bag in our barn freezer near the Red Pump to this day.  It will stay there as a reminder of that cold afternoon of crystalline perfection, frozen fondly in my memory, forever.