We had a lot of winter in our part of Wisconsin, usually settling in around the middle of November and often staying with us into early April when I was growing up. Winter sports were important to me and my brothers. I tended to my trap line each morning on skis, and of course we skied downhill for the sheer fun of it.
When I was 4 or 5, Pa made my first pair of skis out of barrel staves, the curved slats from wooden barrels that were about 3 feet long. He nailed a thin strip of leather to each stave to hold my rubber boots in place. I didn’t mind much that my barrel stave skis were clumsy and performed poorly on hills. They served just fine on the level, sort of like snowshoes.
A couple of years later, my grandfather Witt made me a pair of skis from two 5-foot strips of birch wood that he steamed over a teakettle until he could bend up the front ends. He also nailed a strip of leather across the middle of each of them to accommodate my four-buckle rubber boots. They were wider than barrel staves, and with the turned-up ends I could sail down the hills as well as any kid with “store-bought” skis. Unfortunately, the skis Grandpa made did not have grooves cut in the bottom to keep them going straight. If the snow was packed, I would as likely go sideways as straight ahead — an added benefit that I pointed out to my friends who had “better” skis.
When I was 10, I received a pair of factory-made skis for Christmas. They were 7 feet long, with but one strip of leather to hold my now six-buckle rubber boots. These skis had two grooves on the bottom of each for superior control and steering. Pa bought them at Hotz’s Hardware in Wild Rose. Each ski, somewhere along the way, had lost its mate. One ski was black, the other brown. Dad painted the brown one black so that, with some minor differences, the two discarded skis became a pair. With my new skis I skied to school, skied my trap line each morning, skied to neighbors, and skied at skiing parties the neighborhood kids organized. Somewhere in the shed at my farm I still have one of these old skis. I broke its mate when I hit a stone, or maybe it broke when I got tangled up in a wire fence I tried to cross. The remaining ski, alone again, has many stories to tell.
With winter dragging on and often intensifying in January, oh, how my brothers and I enjoyed the brief respite that Pa called a woodpecker thaw. It usually arrived in mid-January after days of bitter cold and deep drifted snow. It often arrived overnight, while my brothers and I slept in the cold upstairs bedroom in our drafty farmhouse. A room that was supposed to be warmed by the stovepipe that made its way from the wood-burning stove in the dining room through our room and then into the chimney.
We knew the winter thaw had arrived when the eaves on the house were dripping, which I noticed when I hurried to the barn for the early morning milking. By mid-morning it began to rain. A slow, steady, snow-melting rain. As it rained, my brothers and I kept watch of the big hollow in front of the house, where the snow turned from white to gray and then to meltwater as the hollow became a pond.
With the pond slowly becoming larger, I began looking for my ice skates, the clamp-on-your-shoes type that I tightened with a little key that I could carry in my pocket. I had hung the skates in the woodshed the previous spring and forgotten about them until the thaw arrived.
The thaw disappeared quicker than you could say, “Isn’t that a north wind blowing this evening?” Freezing weather returned, but the pond remained. A beautiful, flat slippery surface made for three boys and their clamp-on skates. The ones Pa bought at Hotz’s Hardware in Wild Rose for 50 cents a pair.
The pond would remain perfect for ice skating, sometimes for several weeks. It was another gift of winter for boys who’d tired of shoveling snow, carrying wood, and doing all the other winter-required jobs. Being able to ice skate just a hop and a skip from our farmhouse is one of those small pleasures that I’ve never forgotten.