When it is frigid enough, outdoor ice, formed on rivers, tributaries, harbors, ponds, lakes and reservoirs, is open to everyone. And those who recall the bonfires, hot chocolate and ruddy cheeks that accompanied late nights of outdoor skating -- and later, long, sound sleeps before school the next day -- find it difficult to imagine skating any other way.
In the past, the ritual of leaving terra firma for the unpredictable glories of ice has been repeated on infinite occasions, all over the city: On the boat pond at Druid Hill Park, the swimming pool at Clifton Park, at Cochran's Pond in Woodbrook, in Gwynn Oak Park, on Lake Montebello, Lake Roland (a dangerous and illicit place to skate), the Baltimore Country Club golf links, at Iceland, the Sports Center, the Memorial Stadium and Mondawmin Mall rinks, the pond in Druid Ridge Cemetery, the Gwynn's Falls in Dickeyville, Homeland Lakes and Spring Lake Way.
One newspaper account dating from the '20s tells of the magical night when the boat lake at Patterson Park froze, and rival gangs -- the Patterson Park Tigers and East Baltimore Streeters -- called a truce so they could share the ice in peace.
A 1940 article reported with obvious disappointment that Sunday skating at local rinks conflicted with Baltimore blue laws. Another tells of the intrepid groundskeeper who routinely flooded the seventh fairway at Baltimore Country Club so that citizens could skate on the frozen golf course.
At private clubs, ice skating in Baltimore has been an elite affair, a winter transplant site for finite social sets. At municipal rinks, skating has been a rough and ready sport, where figure skaters, should they dare a waltz jump, may be nabbed by the ice guard for interfering with the treadmill paces of less ambitious skaters.
This season, the temperatures have not yet hit the lows required for outdoor skating. But temperate weather has not kept skaters from trickling back to the indoor rinks, such as Mt. Pleasant Ice Arena and Northwest Family Sports Center Ice Rink in Baltimore, the Columbia Ice Rink, Benfield Pines Ice Rink in Millersville and the new outdoor ice rink at Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis.
On a recent afternoon, all is motion at the Dominic M. "Mimi" DiPietro Family Skating Center in Patterson Park.
Under a big white bubble, in the refrigerated air, skaters graceful and ungainly, bent-kneed and stiff-legged, circle the large rink.
Three people make like a choo-choo train, mittened-hands pushing each other forward on respective rumps. A father pulls his child along as she slips and slides on double blades, with no hope for equilibrium.
A girlfriend and boyfriend skate, hand in hand. A number of teen-age girls wear cool, new hockey skates instead of standard figure skates. Another woman glides solo, a serene smile on her face.
"It's fun, once you get the hang of it," agree Dawn Payne, 15 and Endress Powell, 12, who are skating for the first time in their lives.
Just before 4 p.m., it is time for only speed skaters to take the rink. A rambunctious gaggle of boys line up, and at the whistle, tear around the rink to Elton John's "Crocodile Rock," in emulation of Olympian heroes. Spectators laugh as some skaters wipe out and slide across the ice. A scrappy little kid with long hair wins the second heat. He raises his fists in triumph.
"Skating has been in a growth period for the last four years," says Murray Sandler, president of a New England firm that distributes skating and rink-related equipment to rinks around the country.
"People are taking to skating because it's a very graceful way of exercising. It's also something that once you learn, you'll enjoy for the rest of your life. You don't have to be a Dorothy Hamill to enjoy figure skating," says Sandler, also president of the Ice Skating Institute of America, a program that sponsors about 5,000 yearly events, including lessons, shows and competitions, 450 member rinks.
In his pursuit of skaters, Sandler says he has the faltering economy on his side. "It is a moderately priced recreation," he says. "I think people are seeking these things now. They don't have to go away for the weekend and accrue all these expenses. [They can go to the] local rink -- mother, father and two children -- and for a modest fee, they can have a couple of hours of recreation close by."
The recession, however, has forced the temporary closure of some municipal rinks in New England, Sandler says. And here in Baltimore, The Rash Field skating rink at the Inner Harbor never opened this season, due to the lack of corporate support, according to staff at Baltimore's Office of Promotion and Tourism.