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Frozen in Time

In the Gem State, ice has always been a major byproduct of living near water

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Wild winds almost blew our corner of the world off the planet this past Nov. 17. Now that winter had its official start on Dec. 21, will wild ice and wild snow follow?

Even the most conservative critics now must recognize that the globe is actually warming up season by season. The results from the recently concluded Paris Conference, which involved 196 international parties, give some hope for a worldwide curb on carbon-belching, man-made machines of every variety.

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I've lived in North Idaho long enough to have a tale or two to share this holiday season, about local winters when they were longer and much colder than those we enjoy/endure today.

Almost six decades ago, my husband Scott and I moved from boringly sunny California to chilly North Idaho in search of a four-season climate. We wanted snow to ski on, and most important, ice on which to skate.

Right off the bat, we hit be-careful-what-you-wish-for territory. But we wished for cold and were ecstatic.

The first year, the temperature dropped to zero before Thanksgiving. We merrily skated on little Avondale Lake. That January, we skated all over Hayden Lake, shoveling our names in the snow when it covered the ice. It was late April before the ice finally melted off Hayden. I remember that Scott took a quick dip in the lake — water so cold he required an immediate slug of restorative brandy.

Moving in to Coeur d'Alene, old-timers told us tales of the ice industry that flourished until the availability of electric refrigerators ran the ice delivery service out of business. In those earlier days, Valley Ice and Fuel Company employees would deliver large chunks of ice to the back-porch iceboxes of homes around town. The ice was carved out in massive chunks from Fernan Lake and Lake Coeur d'Alene and stored in a warehouse just a few blocks from Sanders Beach.

Up until very recent times, Fernan Lake would freeze solid every year. Families would turn out en masse to skate, stumble, fall and just have a grand old time. Clamp-on skates that could be adjusted to boot size were passed down from sibling to sibling. The smallest kids moved uncertainly on double runners. Tempting fate, crazy old guys and teenage boys would drive cars onto the ice to spin and slide, just for the fun of it.

In the late '50s, our pal Patrick Flammia introduced his friends to an iceboat, which on a windy day could give its riders a scary thrill, zipping back and forth across Fernan Lake under sail power in seconds each way.

The fellows ventured onto Lake Coeur d'Alene one windy day when the sun was high. The ice was slick, with the water lapping at its edges. The iceboat danced in the wind. Unfortunately, at one turn Pat slipped off the boat and painfully injured his hip. His ice-high friends propped him up against a tree onshore, handing him a flask of spirits to ease the pain, while they kept flying over the ice until dark. The excitement of speed and fear made them just too giddy to quit.

You can guess that some individuals sometimes just had to fall in. It was not unusual for a skater to get a foot wet, or to pull out a child or dog to safety. In the distant past, a team of horses reportedly sank through the ice beyond reach of horrified bystanders. But in general, if the weather was cold enough, the ice would hold.

Perhaps the worst ice disaster in my memory was the loss of the king of the lake, Fred Murphy, who rode his snowmobile right through the ice on Lake Coeur d'Alene in the winter of 1986. Fred and his wife Ginny lived year-round in a home on Casco Bay that could be reached only by boat. In winters when the ice covered the lake, their children skated to school. His son Loren once told me about the mystic joy of skating home by moonlight after a high school event.

It has been a long time since Lake Coeur d'Alene has completely frozen over. Even the smaller, shallower lakes can't be relied upon for solid wild ice.

It's commendable that wild ice has been replaced by ice rinks, built by younger, energetic ice enthusiasts who now provide artificial ice for future stars to engage in the great sport of ice hockey.

It's easy to long for totally green, non-carbon-releasing natural ice, just as it's easy to long for young bones and sturdy legs to skate with. We have to start from now and go forward, not backward, in time or technology.

Here's wishing you the ice of your choice — on skates or in a glass — snow for snowmen, soft landings, warm hearths (and hearts) and good health and good times in 2016 — and beyond. Peace on Earth! ♦