Monday, January 27, 2014

Kickapoo Slough Skating

I attended the Winter Fest at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve recently and I noticed a boatload of youngsters frolicking on the skating rink there.  Watching the kids careening around on the ice triggered some wintertime memories of my youthful days growing up in La Farge.  That skating scene took me back to a time in the late 1950s and to memories of skating on the village’s rink and the sloughs of the Kickapoo River.
            At that time, when I was growing up in La Farge, the village’s ice skating rink was on the corner lot just south of the present Z-Zip Stop, next to the present motel.  Nothing is on the lot at this time, although it has been filled in (probably when the motel was constructed in the 1970s).  Back in those days it was a low-laying expanse with dikes of dirt piled around the boundaries to keep the water in the rink area.  We played baseball on the lot in the summertime and it was a home run if you hit it over one of those weed covered dirt dikes that rimmed the outfield.
            When it started getting cold, Ray Young, who worked for the village then, would start to fill the lot with water to freeze for a skating rink.  Some members of the fire department, which was located close by, would bring hoses to hook to the hydrant on the corner and help with the creating of the rink.  This work was usually done in the evening after super and several layers were added to make for a good ice surface.  When the ice was ready, the kids flocked to the glistening rink, especially on Saturday’s when there was no school.
            I was never much of a skater.  I could stand on the teetering edges of my skates and move forward in a relatively straight, forward manner at a very slow speed.  Tricky stuff like turning and stopping were beyond my limited skill set.  Often my skating experience would be to sit by the warming stove or fire and watch everyone else skate by.  When little kids who were just learning to skate were being helped around the rink, I would be lumped in with that bunch of novices.  The little ones would soon catch on to the skating skills and go careening off on their own.  I would continue to be pulled behind a big stick until being eventually dropped off back by the fire to sit and watch. 
I did like to play hockey. When the boys chose sides for a hockey game, I was always the last kid picked. I was usually allowed to be the goalie since standing in one place in front of a goal matched my skating skills quite well.  Sometimes the guys would even let me be goalie with no skates.  I was quite adept at being a goalie in my winter boots.
The problem with having hockey games at the village rink was that there was never enough room, especially on those busy weekends when everyone came out to skate.  If the rink was crowded with skaters of all ages, then playing a hockey game was just about impossible.  On several of those winters from the past, we decided to head to the Kickapoo for our hockey playing. 
Slough skating is a whole different experience than being on the village rink.  We would head up to Seelyburg and use the ice on the slough there next to the Kickapoo River.  The slough was part of the Darrell Hollenbeck farm back then, so it was also known as the Hollenbeck Slough.  You don’t hear the word “slough” much anymore as swamp, marsh and wetlands are more commonly used terms now.  A slough is a big swamp or area of wetland and the Kickapoo, being a meandering stream, has plenty of them along its course.  The Seelyburg Slough was always full of water back then because the river was dammed up for the power plant at Seelyburg.  A bank-full Kickapoo also meant a high water level in the nearby slough.  When the winter’s cold temperatures came the waters of the slough would freeze over and a great hockey rink was there for the taking - well, sort of. 
First of all, someone had to check and see if the ice was good and thick enough for skating.  Someone had to check out where the snags from fallen trees and branches were in the ice and mark then off for others to see.  Then we had to get the snow off from the ice to set up our hockey rink.  As you trudged up old Highway 131 to the slough, you would have your hockey stick and skates tied together over one shoulder and a snow shovel over the other.  A dozen boys on skates with snow shovels can soon have a hockey rink sized area cleared for a game.  Since I couldn’t really skate, often my job in this process was to clear out the goal areas on each end and set up the goals.
The goals were usually made up of tree branches found around the slough.  Constructing the goals was an inexact science, depending what kind of wooden debris one could find in the area.  Often, one goal would be quite different from the other located at the other end of the icy expanse.  Being a perpetual goalie, I had a natural propensity to make the goalmouths tidy little areas, which a practically non-skating goalie could easily cover in somewhat all-star form.
The dimensions of the slough rink was also an always changing shape and form.  One year, Hank Trappe brought his tractor and blade over from his farm and cleared the entire slough for skating.  That winter we had one of the largest rinks in the history of Kickapoo slough hockey.  The rink probably stretched for a quarter-mile in length or longer and actually bent around the hill.  Because of that bend in the rink, the goal on one end wasn’t visible to the goal on the other.
  I was playing goalie in the south goal one sunny Saturday afternoon on that huge curving slough hockey rink.  I actually was wearing my skates on that day (used hockey skates and a size or two too big for my feet, even with extra socks), but I didn’t have a stick.  I found a branch that had a lower part that pretty much stretched across the small goalmouth and had a short piece going upward that served as a handle.  When I managed to stay upright on my skates and handled the branch-goalie stick with moderate skill, I kept that crumpled-up tin beer can that we always used for a puck out of the goal pretty successfully.
Eventually, the two teams of skaters would head off towards the other goal around the bend to the north.  Since this trek to the far off north goal often took quite awhile and the time became longer if there was spirited action around the other goal, I had plenty of time on my hands with nothing to do.  Sometimes it would be almost ten minutes before the two teams came sliding back my way.  Since I couldn’t even see the action on the other end, my attention would often flag a bit.
One time during one of these long absences from any hockey action, I noticed a mink darting along the river’s edge to my right.  I watched it from my goal perch for a while and then decided to check it out closer.  Leaving my massive branch-goalie stick in the goalmouth, I glided slowly over to the slough edge to get a closer look at the mink.  While I was absent from the goal, the other players suddenly appeared around the bend heading for my unmanned goal.  My teammates screamed at me to get back on duty.
Skating frantically towards my unguarded goal, I soon started to loose my balance as the tin can puck was batted southward.  The faster that I tried to skate, the more that the forces of gravity pulled me down to the icy surface.  As I neared my goal, I was starting to loose any type of control over my skates, but I did arrive at the goalmouth shortly before the rest of the players.  Unfortunately I could not stop, but instead went hopelessly down in a sliding clump directly into the goalmouth.  I continued on through the goal, completely wiping out the flimsily constructed edifice in the process.  Interestingly, since there was no longer any kind of a goal in place, I did stop the other team from scoring.
Of course, some players on the other side called me a cheat.  Most skaters on both sides were laughing at my mad dash across the ice and destruction of my own goal.  Trying to retrieve some form of athletic dignity, I was still trying to get back to my wobbly feet with little success.  Eventually, the skaters all returned to the north goal and commenced to play a half-rink game, leaving me to myself on the distant far end of the slough.  I returned to my research on the wintry exploits of the wayward mink and perfecting my straight, forward, no-stop skating style.
There is nothing like slough skating on a sunny Saturday afternoon.