A nicely icy experience

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane Daniel
Globe Correspondent / March 16, 2003

In his native Netherlands, Wessel Kok liked to challenge himself by completing the "Elfstedentocht" or "Eleven Cities Tour," a 200-kilometer (125-mile) speed-skating tour over frozen canals and lakes that loops through 11 cities. The event is so popular that registration is capped at 20,000. Often, though, winters are not cold enough for the event, so skaters go to an alternative tour held yearly in Austria on Weissensee Lake.

"I don't do it for the time, just to finish it," Kok, 39, said of the tour, which lasts from before sunrise until after sunset.

When he moved to the Boston area last fall to work at bioMerieux in Rockland, Kok was happy to discover that many lakes here freeze in the winter.

Thanks to the Internet, Kok, who lives in Hull, learned about the Montshire Speed skating Club, a group that promotes ice skating and in-line skating in Vermont and New Hampshire. In January he skated in the group's North American Marathon Speedskating Championships on Lake Morey in Fairlee, Vt.

"There were people from Canada and the US, and one-third had Dutch family names," Kok said.

A few weeks later, some fellow skaters took him to Lake George in the Adirondacks region of New York for a day on the ice. So when his friend Frans van Dinther was planning to visit from the Netherlands, Kok told him, "Bring your speed skates."

The morning after van Dinther, 44, arrived, they made the five-hour drive to Lake George in the car Kok bought when he moved here: a 21-year-old Mercedes that doesn't always start in frigid weather, prompting him to join the American Automobile Association. On the drive out, they stopped at a Burger King in Watervliet, one of several towns near Albany bearing Dutch names, and sampled the boxed "Dutch Apple Pie."

They drove through Lake George village and parked at Bolton Landing, getting onto the 2-foot-thick ice at the boat launch near the Sagamore Resort Hotel.

"The weather was wonderful, with a bright sky, but also a pretty firm wind," Kok said. "The temperature was about 5 degrees - however, with the windchill factor it must have been at least minus 10." It rarely gets that cold in the Netherlands, he said.

They decided to skate to Huletts Landing, across the lake and to the north. Kok figured it was about 15 miles and would take them three hours in a headwind, but only an hour back in the tailwind. The surface was patchy with snow, and they had to be extra careful at heave spots.

They were the only skaters on the ice, though they did encounter snowmobilers and ice fishermen, a new experience for the Dutchmen.

"Some of them are just sitting on their bucket. I think, how do they enjoy themselves? But they probably think the same of us," he said.

They talked to one man who had a bucketful of fish and showed Kok and van Dinther how he had drilled the hole and made his catches.

By the time they neared Huletts Landing, it was twilight and Kok knew they didn't have time to make it to land. Just as they turned around, a couple of snowmobilers stopped to make sure the men were all right. "It was nice that they cared," he said. But Kok added that between their frozen faces and a slight language barrier, the Dutchmen weren't making sense to the snowmobilers, who thought perhaps the skaters had become hypothermic. They were able to convince the snowmobilers otherwise, and headed back across the lake accompanied by both a swift tailwind and a full moon.

"I like that part of the journey the most," said Kok, who described how in the frigid weather the surface of the ice cracks with a sharp sound that travels across the lake.

Back at the car, van Dinther hoped aloud that it would start, and Kok answered, "Don't worry, I'm a triple-A member." Luckily, van Dinther didn't have to find out firsthand what that entailed.

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