Spy Pond

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Heavy Whether

borgpond

Chris Daly posts a 1995 essay he wrote for the Atlantic, recalling almost exactly the experience I had as a kid growing up and skating on ponds in the winter. An excerpt:

When I was a boy skating on Brooks Pond, there were almost no grown-ups around. Once or twice a year, on a weekend day or a holiday, some parents might come by, with a thermos of hot cocoa. Maybe they would build a fire — which we were forbidden to do — and we would gather round.

But for the most part the pond was the domain of children. In the absence of adults, we made and enforced our own rules. We had hardly any gear – just some borrowed hockey gloves, some hand-me-down skates, maybe an elbow pad or two – so we played a clean form of hockey, with no high-sticking, no punching, and almost no checking. A single fight could ruin the whole afternoon. Indeed, as I remember it 30 years later, it was the purest form of hockey I ever saw – until I got to see the Russian national team play the game.

But before we could play, we had to check the ice. We became serious junior meteorologists, true connoisseurs of cold. We learned that the best weather for pond skating is plain, clear cold, with starry nights and no snow. (Snow not only mucks up the skating surface but also insulates the ice from the colder air above.) And we learned that moving water, even the gently flowing Mystic River, is a lot less likely to freeze than standing water. So we skated only on the pond. We learned all the weird whooping and cracking sounds that ice makes as it expands and contracts, and thus when to leave the ice.

Do kids learn these things today? I don’t know. How would they? We don’t even let them. Instead, we post signs. Ruled by lawyers, cities and towns everywhere try to eliminate their legal liability. But try as they might, they cannot eliminate the underlying risk. Liability is a social construct; risk is a natural fact. When it is cold enough, ponds freeze. No sign or fence or ordinance can change that.

In fact, by focusing on liability and not teaching our kids how to take risks, we are making their world more dangerous. When we were children, we had to learn to evaluate risks and handle them on our own. We had to learn, quite literally, to test the waters. As a result, we grew up to be more savvy about ice and ponds than any kid could be who has skated only under adult supervision on a rink.

While Chris lived in Medford, near Boston, I lived Maywood, New Jersey, which is near New York. Like Medford, Maywood was a mixed blue/white collar town. Still, it wasn’t dangerous.. Nobody worried about a kid being ‘napped. Or abused, except by bullies (which were normal hazards of life). Kids were taught early to be independent. I remember how I learned to walk to kindergarten. Mom came all the way with me on the first day. On the second, she let me walk the last block myself. Then one block less the next day. Then one block less the next day. Finally, I walked all the way myself — about half a mile. I had turned five years old only two months before.

We mostly skated at Borg’s pond, in Borg’s Woods, a private paradise under a canopy of old growth hardwood on the Maywood-Hackensack border, owned by the Borg family, which published the Bergen Record during its heyday as a truly great newspaper. The pond is still there, inside the green patch at the center of this map. Great to see from the Borg’s Woods Page (actually a site with much more) that the woods is now a preserve   Here’s a trail map that shows the pond. And here is a tour of the woods that shows the pond (I hope Eric Martindale, who maintains the site, doesn’t mind my borrowing the pond shot above), the “four oaks” that are still standing (and where we used to have club meetings), the sledding hill behind the Borg house and more. What a treat to find that it hardly looks any different now than it did fifty years ago.

We could skate on larger water bodies too. There were other lakes and reservoirs nearby. I also have fond memories of Greenwood Lake , where I lived a young adult, editing the late West Milford Argus. Ours was a former summer house (made mostly of cast-off parts) only a few feet from the shore. In the winter we skated there and in the summer we canoed up into New York (State), across the border of which the long lake lay on maps like a big stitch.

Anyway, Chris is right. On the whole we were more free. Not of restrictions. Heaven knows, parents then were much more stern and disciplinary back then. Spanking, for example, was the norm. Our freedom was from fear of what might happen as we became more independent and self-reliant.

Thinking more about it, I don’t want to idealize my childhood years. We lived in constant fear of nuclear annihilation, for example. Through much of my childhood I kept a list in my head of all the places I wanted to see before everybody was incinerated by some politician with an itchy finger. There were also racial, sexual and other forms of oppression, repression and worse.

But we were a bit closer to a natural state in some ways, I think. Or at least kids were. Outside of school, anyway.

By the way, I see that the Brooks Estate, home of Brooks Pond, is now also a nature preserve. As it happens I have also shot pictures of that place from the air. Here’s one. And here’s a shot of Spy Pond (subject of my last post).

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spypondhockey

For most of Winter in the Northeast, skating is possible only during the somewhat rare times when the ice is thick and not covered with snow or other unwelcome surface conditions. And bad skating has been the story, typically, for most of this Winter around Boston. After an earlier snow, there were some ad hoc skating rinks cleared by shoveling, but those were ruined by rains, more snow, more rains, and intermittent freezes that made a hash of the surface. But recent rains and hard freezes have formed wide paths between remaining islands of ruined snow. On most ponds there aren’t enough open spaces for real hockey games, but there’s plenty enough for skating, and for hockey practice, anyway. (A note to newbies and outsiders: nearly all lakes here are called ponds. Dunno why yet. Maybe one of ya’ll can tell me. Still a bit of a noob myself.)

Hockey practice is what I saw when I paused to take a sunset shot with my phone at Spy Pond, which I passed it late this afternoon on a long walk along the Minuteman Bikeway, which is one of my favorite walking paths (and thoroughfares — at least when it’s warm and clear enough to bike on). As it happens, Spy Pond ice has some history. There was a period, in the mid- to late-1800s, after railroads got big, but before refrigeration came along, when New England was a source for much of the world’s shipped ice. And Spy Pond itself was one of the most productive sources. This picture here…

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… shows ice being harvested for storage in ice houses beside the railroad which is now the Bikeway. I stood near the left edge of this scene when I took the picture at the top, and the boy and his dad playing hockey were about where at the center left, where a horse is shown pulling what looks like a man with a plow. (That last shot is from this historical display alongside the bikeway.)

The brainfather of Boston’s ice industry was Frederic Tudor, about whom I have learned a great deal from The Ice King: Frederic Tudor and His Circle. Highly recommended, if you’re into half-forgotten New England history. The book came as a bonus with membership in Mystic Seaport, a terrific maritime museum down the road on the Connecticut coast.

[Later...] The industry you see depicted above can also serve as a metaphor. For that a hat tip goes to Robin Lubbock (@RLma), New Media Director of WBUR, who pointed me to this piece by Michael Rosenblum. Nails it. (I also love Rosenblum’s Maybe monetizing is not the answer and Edward III, Crecy and Local TV Newsrooms, also via Robin.)

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