Exploring the Seacoast by Skate & Sled
A winter’s day with friends, through Portsmouth and Rye
The steep narrow hill rose from the scrub pines and frozen marsh grass that fringed the beach. As we hiked along, I realized we were trekking over a massive bunker and gun emplacement that helped protect the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard during World War II.
The concrete bunker had been reinforced with earthworks, and over the past 80 years, a crop of small trees and shrubs had taken root there. The inland side of the gun emplacement was angled sharply downward, forming a nearly vertical pitch with a few broken rocks and ragged bushes jutting up from the snow.
Before long, I was seated on the crest of the hill, legs extended downslope, my boot heels raised a few inches above the glistening snow pack. Below me was a sort of homemade luge run, a narrow depression in the snow that extended for approximately 45 yards, doglegging to the left about three-quarters of the way down, and studded with rocks and tufts of wilted bracken.
A few moments earlier, my longtime rugby teammate, Chris Pierce, had executed a glissade from this spot and barely avoided a disaster, skimming past the large red boulder at the conclusion of the run. From the top of the hill, it looked like a gravestone.
After Piercey got to his feet, his 12-year-old son Willem followed, zooming down like a pocket rocket. He went flying off the hard, packed snow, going airborne for a couple yards, then touching down for a split-second before catching air a second time. Piercey grabbed Willem at the bottom of the slope, pulling him away from the big rock.
Jackson Spellman and Mike Zizza were next. Both rugby players and frequent co-conspirators on our sketchy adventures, Jackson and Mike shot down the slippery track without incident. Then I took my place at the top of the run.
“Are you doing it?” Piercey yelled.
I nodded. “Yeah.”
Making the sign of the cross and kissing the fingertips of my right hand, I pushed myself over the crest of the bunker and went flying downhill.
Four hours earlier, I had rendezvoused with Mike and his 26-year-old daughter, Sofia, on the historic 10-acre campus of Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth. Our first planned activity was an outing at Labrie Family Skate at Puddle Dock Pond.
It was 17 degrees beneath a corrugated gray sky when Piercey, his wife, Tanya, Willem and 15-year-old daughter, Kaya, pulled up beside us, followed by Jackson and his wife, Kristi “Stitches” Spellman, and then Joe Klementovich, our “spiritual advisor” and photographer. We hadn’t all been together for a while and formed a line to hug it out.
“Whew. I’m exhausted,” I said, making Kristi laugh.
The tidy lodge on the edge of the parking lot contained a skate rental area, ticket counter and sparklingly clean bathrooms and floors.
“This is not the kind of hockey rink I am used to,” I said to Mike, who also grew up playing the sport. “The floors are dry, and it doesn’t reek of urine.”
Tickets for non-members were $12 for a 90-minute session, and we milled around in the well-lit space, lacing up our skates and trading friendly insults. I caught Piercey’s eye, and he raised his eyebrows and grinned at me.
Tanya, Piercey, Willem and I had been skating and playing hockey outdoors all winter. But Kaya Pierce wasn’t able to join us on those backyard rinks and frozen ponds. A determined outdoor enthusiast and athlete, Kaya, who has cerebral palsy, is proficient at snowshoeing, hiking and adaptive cycling and skiing. Over the past couple years, she’d also tried her hand at open water swimming, completing an abbreviated first leg of our annual DIY Backcountry Triathlon in Rumney, New Hampshire. The event is held in late September when the water in Stinson Lake is quite cold.
But Kaya wasn’t able to ice skate, and that sent Piercey searching for a remedy. He discovered that Labrie Family Skate is in partnership with Northeast Passage (NEP), a nonprofit organization located at the University of New Hampshire. NEP is dedicated to creating a “barrier-free world” for people with disabilities, especially athletes. NEP’s program in Portsmouth would enable Kaya to use adaptive skating equipment, including a sit-down recreational ice sled.
Our whole gang took to the ice at the same time, kicking things off with the sort of frictionless motion that we’d been chasing all winter across various surfaces.
By 10 a.m., the temperature had risen to 22 degrees and the clouds drifted away, revealing a glassy blue sky. The ice at Puddle Dock Pond gleamed with a mother-of-pearl finish, and the clack of our skates echoed across the narrow rink as we exited the lodge. The S-shaped rink was surrounded by a white fence like at a racetrack and hemmed in by a cluster of skeletal trees.
When Mike and I first walked into the lodge earlier that morning, a friendly young woman at the counter said the 10 a.m. skate would be lightly attended, and since our session was being cut a little short to prepare for an ice show, the skate rental fees were being waived.
So we had free rein over the ice, sharing the rink with a dozen other people, including a young family, a middle-aged couple wobbling along hand in hand, and a few kids in youth hockey jerseys wheeling around the ice, exhaling plumes of condensation.
An all-round athlete like his parents, Willem is an eager student when it comes to new sports. After a couple laps, I got my legs under me and Willem fell in alongside as we circled the rink. I’d been skating with him at our friends Bob and Mandi Bishop’s backyard rink, focusing on a few basic principles. Standing by the fence, we returned to the training rubric that I’d provided — Willem with the heels of his skates tipped together to form a V, a deep knee bend with a protruding “monkey butt,” and a straight back with his head up, looking down the ice.
I’d also taught him the “robot” arm swing, alternately coming straight out from behind his hip with his gloved fist rising almost to chin level. Our skates crunching into the ice, I moved out in front keeping my body low, and took several “long and strong” strides, picking up speed.
Twenty yards down the rink, I slowed down and watched Willem zip down the ice, extending his front leg and pushing off the inside edge of his rear skate. He went past me, whizzing along like a great blue heron flying up from a sheet of open water. It reminded me of my son Liam at that age, swooping over the ice on Phillips Pond with his cousins, a lifelong skill that, once acquired, is always cherished, never forgotten.
Pulling Kaya on the ice sled, Piercey caught up, lifting his chin toward Will to acknowledge his progress.
“That’s money,” I said.
Nearby, Sofia was using her dad as a comic foil while making an irreverent video for her social media. Insisting that she never did that sort of thing, the University of South Carolina graduate handed over her phone. In the video, Mike is skating with an uncertain look on his face, lip syncing his lines with a preadolescent girl’s voice dubbed over his.
Skating beside Sofia, Mike said, “Am I too old to be here?” in that high-pitched voice.
“What?” said Sofia.
Mike threw his hands up.“Does it look weird that I’m here?”
“No, not at all.”
Mike looked into the camera. “Am I higher than these little b******?” he asked.
“You look amazing,” Sofia said.
When Tanya came by with the sled, I took over, pulling Kaya around the rink while inserting my inane commentary to make her laugh. I soon discovered that the ice sled was different from the steel-runner Radio Flyers of my youth. On Kaya’s sled, the runners were like the blades of a hockey skate, sharpened to create an “inside” and “outside” edge on each side. Going at a good clip, I made an abrupt turn to the left, causing the right-side runner to rise off the ice.
Kaya let out a scream.
Just before the sled capsized, I took a quick step to my right, leveling Kaya out again. “I just did that to see how you’d react,” I said, grinning at her.
“No you didn’t,” she said, and we laughed.
Circling the rink, we came across Kristi, holding the edge of the perimeter fence and stepping daintily along in her rental skates. A former Miss Teen Dance America and classically trained dancer, Kristi has a wry, understated manner that jibes with my personality. When it comes to quirky outdoor excursions, she and I had our own spinoff series entitled “The Misadventures of Kristi and Jay.”
“I figured you for a skater,” I said.
“I haven’t skated since I was 11,” Kristi said. “The water doesn’t freeze where we live.”
“Bend your knees more,” I said. “Lower your center of gravity a bit. For crissakes, you’re a ballet dancer.”
After a couple minutes, Kristi was gliding along. “You got this, Stiches,” I said.
Suddenly, she caught an edge and went down like she’d been shot. “You’re definitely getting the hang of it,” I said, helping her up.
While I was taking my turn pulling Kaya, her mother was intent on skating laps, whipping past us with a blissful look on her face. Tanya Koning Pierce was an All-American in soccer at Ithaca College in upstate New York, while Piercey was an Academic All-American in wrestling. Taking up ice hockey as an adult is difficult, but Tanya had turned herself into a pretty good player over the past few winters. Piercey, on the other hand, barrels around the ice like a rodeo clown when we play hockey on the Bishops’ backyard rink.
I spend a lot of time outdoors with the Pierces engaged in all sorts of activities. Mostly we go with the flow, the Zen practitioners of tricky conditions and terrible weather. But the zeal with which Tanya and Piercey track their data makes the CIA look like slackers. Though living in the moment, they catalog everything their gadgets will allow: calories burned, respiration, heart rate; how cold, how far, how fast, how long; the per second shadings of available light, the depth of the water, the thickness of the ice, even how they felt about it all, the “mood ring” of exalted consciousness expanding into a gestalt that tallies up every drop of sweat expelled over a lifetime spent sallying over the uneven terrain of the hinterlands.
Slowing down, Tanya skated over to Kaya and me, gliding along with her right foot slightly forward. “Want me to take another turn?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said, handing over the rope attached to the sled. “We had a million laughs. I kept track.”
From Strawberry Banke, we drove in a caravan to Odiorne Point State Park in nearby Rye. The 135-acre seaside park is located at the mouth of the Piscataqua River, the shoreline running southward from the jetty. For centuries, this stretch of territory had been the summer gathering place of the local Abenaki, a respite from the harsh New England winters and a haven of sustainable fishing, including an abundance of mussels and clams.
In 1660, settler John Odiorne moved his family to this location with the spit of land remaining in the family for generations. With the second World War on the horizon, the existing homes and other structures were torn down, and the coastline was fortified as part of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard’s defenses. Fort Dearborn, as it came to be known, was named for Revolutionary War Major-General Henry Dearborn and occupied by the 22nd Coast Artillery Regiment for the duration of the war. In 1961, the federal government transferred 137 acres of the fort to the state of New Hampshire, limiting its use to recreational pursuits.
After we’d begun traveling over the bunker that had once contained two 16-inch Mark IIMI ex-Navy guns, Piercey decided to slide down the rear slope, and the others followed.
Now, I inched forward on my backside and dropped into the narrow luge run, plummeting down the slope. The snow was hard and slick, but I could feel an occasional rock through the seat of my Gore-Tex pants. Accelerating quickly, my lower body was vibrating upward when my heel caught a low, broken off branch to the left of the trail.
Immediately, I sprang into the air, tumbling sideways from hip to shoulder, my field of vision bouncing from the sky to the ground to the forest, as if Alfred Hitchcock had thrown a movie camera off of Mount Rushmore. My head was pointed downhill and, closing fast on the boulder, I used some voodoo body English to correct myself in midair. Twisting around, I got my boot heels pointed downslope just in time, moving at terminal velocity.
The reddish boulder loomed large, coming straight at me in VistaVision. A split-second before reaching the bottom, I managed to throw my hip out to the left, swinging my feet that way as I scraped along the rough edge of the boulder and jerked to a halt. Mike and Jackson and Willem were agog, staring at me like I’d fallen out of an airplane with a martini in my hand.
I made a “safe” sign with my arms.
“No injuries,” I said.
Piercey leaned over the boulder, grinning. “I got it on video,” he said.
After coming around the bunker to explore the darkened, graffiti-covered interior, we looked out through the slit in the concrete wall at the Atlantic Ocean just 30 yards away. The guns housed in this facility were never fired during World War II, but were manned 24/7 for the duration, scanning for German U-boats and other enemy vessels.
Mike and I were a couple feet apart, watching the little breakers rolling up on the beach. “Imagine being in one of those German bunkers on D-Day as the allies hit the beach,” I said in a quiet voice. “Just knowing that your cause was totally in the wrong.”
Mike nodded, gazing out to sea.
Emerging from the bunker, I spotted Kristi hiking along the beach, following the rest of the group back to the trailhead.
Earlier, when we’d arrived at the boat launch parking lot, Willem had bolted from the car and gone rock hopping over the rough icy surface of the jetty, with the gray-green Atlantic Ocean to his right and the Piscataqua River on his left. Piercey went scrambling after him, and Kristi, Tanya, Mike and I mounted the jetty and began following the two Pierces when Kristi cried out.
The jetty was made from brownish-green blocks of granite, each the size of a small car, jumbled here and there with dark crevasses between them. Somehow Kristi had managed to step into a pothole, breaking through the thin coat of ice and immersing herself in freezing cold seawater to the knee.
Kristi looked at me and laughed. “How did that happen?” she asked.
Ninety minutes later, the two of us were walking along the snowy edge of the beach. Kristi was favoring her half-frozen right leg. And with the burst of adrenaline from my glissade ebbing away, my left hip felt jammed into my socket, causing me to march up and down like a marionette.
“All we need is a little drummer boy,” I said. “And we could hobble along with bandages wrapped around our heads playing the fife and waving the colonial flag.”
Kristi and I share a lot of alternative lifestyle ideas — for example, I’ve been waiting two years for her to develop a new vegan protein powder that will raise my skein of crazy activities to the next level. So, hindered as we were, she told me about her “guru” from India who’d recently sorted out an issue with her back. As we entered a trail that cut through the woods, Kristi showed me a photo of the portable sauna that she’d recently purchased online — without mentioning it to Jackson.
Expecting to see a linen closet made of Norwegian wood, I glanced down at Kristi’s sleek little head sticking out of a gray plastic bag that was the size of a washing machine and had an orange zipper running down the front.
I doubled over laughing. “Get out of town with your alien sauna,” I said.
In the parking lot, Piercey said he’d completed a 3-mile hike with such-and-such a calorie burn, etc. “That’s pretty good,” I said. He looked down at his GPS, and said, “You only did 2.65 miles.”
Twenty minutes later, we reconvened in downtown Portsmouth at the Green Elephant, a vegetarian bistro and bar featuring Asian cuisine and local beers. Last summer, my son Liam and I had stopped there on our way back from a minor league baseball game in Portland, and were impressed with the quality of the food and service.
It was late afternoon, and the narrow space of the restaurant was filled with low winter light, as well as the aroma of Thai spices wafting out from the kitchen. The 10 of us occupied a long table along the left-hand wall, where I was subjected to some comic skepticism from the assembly.
“Who let the vegan pick the restaurant?” said Jackson, snickering behind his menu.
“Hey, I’m on your side — the only vegan who ever threw a punch,” I said.
“But did you connect with it?” Piercey said.
Mike laughed. “He connected with that head-butt in Philly,” he said, hearkening back to a rugby match several years earlier.
But soon our food and local beers had arrived and, amidst the friendly clatter of the restaurant, we began passing around the pad thai, panang curry, dumplings and Thai ginger noodles.
Piercey hailed me from across the table. “Good call,” he said.