Editor’s Note: Many thanks to George Boursaw (Tim’s uncle) for these memories of ice-skating on the Old Mission Peninsula in the 1940s – 1950s…jb
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Ice-skating has long been a favorite pastime of mine, and the local rink I frequented as a youth nurtured a lot of memories and taught me some lifelong lessons. The rink was an outdoor facility located in the northeast corner of Bowers Harbor Park, about where the tennis courts are now located. It had a wooden warming house converted from a train boxcar. Heated with a woodburning pot belly stove, crude wooden benches lined both sides and makeshift windows were cut into the side overlooking the rink.
The Bowers Harbor ice rink was frequented by little kids, elementary students, junior high students and some high school boys. The younger students were an even mix of boys and girls. By junior high, however, the ladies began to drop out, and by ninth grade and up, it was primarily guys. While there was an occasional adult, usually a parent, many of the little kids were transported by an older sibling who also hung around to skate.
When I started skating, an older brother would take me to the rink. Bryce Boursaw was six years older than me, and Jerry Boursaw a couple of years older than that. Eventually, I could transport myself. I was in my mid-20s, in graduate school, before I ever skated on an indoor rink.
As I got older and more adept on my blades, I learned to become more aware of little kids who were struggling a bit on their skates. As I whizzed around the oval, it was my responsibility to give them space and let them learn. It was up to the big kids to include the little guys, in a safe way, in our games. So as my big brothers had done for me, my buddies and I watched over the flock.
There was very little bullying on the rink because the younger ones were siblings of a cohort. It was also the responsibility of the older boys to occasionally scrape the ice shavings, thrown by the skaters, off the surface. That was fun, and it certainly taught us teamwork.
I was always shy around the ladies, but once the skates were on, I was totally at ease. On occasion, a young lady and I would zip around the ice hand in hand. But being of short attention span, after a couple of trips around the rink, I’d drop her hand and skate off to join my pals.
Skating also gave me some insight into my personal shortcomings and guided me to my career. I owe a debt of gratitude to a particular junior high lady named Sara Hoffman (daughter of Tom and Irene Hoffman). By then, I was attending a local junior college, and one evening at the rink she challenged me to a race. After agreeing to how much of a head start she would get, she turned to me and said, “But you must try your hardest, you never do.” I realized the observation was valid. I was a bit laissez-faire.
She was also one of the students who would bring their science fair projects to the warming house and ask for help. I realized I liked working with young people, and that helped me direct my math skills towards being a teacher.
Not all my skating was done at the rink. One winter a local inland lake froze over with no snow cover. Located off Swaney Road, we called it Sweeney Lake at the time, but now its official name is Prescott Lake. We accessed it from Swaney Road.
In the evenings we would gather there and skate around an area illuminated with kerosene lanterns set on the ice. Upon returning one evening, I mentioned to Mom that I had seen Denny and Terry Wells skating there. She gave me a shocked, “They were!” Then she told me their mother’s brother, as a youth, had fallen through the ice there and drowned.
While skating on the lake was fun and different, nothing compares with skating on the bay. I grew up on the shores of East Bay, on the corner of Bluff Road and Boursaw Road. Most years, the bay did not freeze and when it did, typically it blew full of drift ice from Lake Michigan that would freeze in place. The bay then looked like a scene from the arctic tundra, snow covered and rugged. But occasionally, almost magically, during a cold snap, the bay would freeze smooth, looking like a massive sheet of glass.
My first memory of such a winter occurred while I was still a novice skater. Brothers Jerry and Bryce had invited friends over for a game of hockey. I puttered around near the shore and tried to stay out of their way, but at one point, the puck went through one of the pressure cracks. Fortunately, it was shallow water.
Bryce, the most coordinated of the group, took two hockey sticks, one in each hand. He managed to reach through the crack, trap the puck between the sticks and lift it out of the water. He was also a bit of a showboat. He raised the sticks high above his head to display the puck, and began to triumphantly skate backwards. Unfortunately, he skated into another crack and went into the icy water. It was only about waist deep so he scrambled out and made his way a short distance to the house for a much-needed change of clothes.
Another such winter occurred in the mid-1950s. Bryce was home on leave from the United States Navy, and every afternoon when I got off the bus, he and I would skate until supper time. It was dark by then anyway. The weekends were even better. Bryce and I could skate for hours. The winter stayed cold and crisp with no new snow, so for at least two weeks we put in a lot of ice time.
There were, however, some drawbacks. Once the bay froze, it was like moving 40 miles inland. The deep water of the bay kept our winter temperature fairly temperate by Northern Michigan standards, but once the bay froze we lost that protection.
The other drawback was that we were both young and dumb. We always took off with the wind to our back. After a dreamy three-mile skate heading south, we would turn around. Oh my, the cold wind was now in our face. The wind was never real strong, but as we headed north, there was nothing to stop it short of the Upper Peninsula, over one hundred miles away. Heading south, there was only smooth ice all the way to Traverse City, at least 15 miles in the distance.
Whether alone or with a brother, the peace and solitude of a skate on the bay was a great feeling of being at one with nature. Of course, there were pressure cracks, but hey, they were easy to avoid and interesting. When the water froze, it created small air gaps between the water and the ice in some places. As the ice thickened, the gap was squeezed and the air would break through and cause a pressure crack. As you were skating, your weight would press the ice down a bit and force those pockets of air to rush forward to find an existing crack or perhaps break through on its own. That caused interesting sound effects as you glided along.
Occasionally, you would even hear a crack far ahead of you. It sounds terrifying but was actually reassuring. It meant the bay was still making ice.
Sometimes the ice was so clear I could see fish swimming below me as I skated. After following them for a while they would veer off and head out further from shore. The water is deceptive. As I whizzed along, I’d spot a rock and inadvertently glide around it, even though it was probably 20 feet below me.
The clear ice also provided some humor for me, but not for the ducks. From the sky, the bay apparently looked like open water to a duck. An approaching flock of ducks would spot a flock resting on the ice and glide in to join them. But, of course, when they hit the slick ice, the landing flock would go sliding into the resting flock and send them spinning away like a bowling ball scattering the pins.
I miss the freedom I felt out there on the ice as a young boy with a sheet of glass on which I could skate on all the way to Traverse City and back, with only the sound of my blades sliding against the ice. The Old Mission Peninsula was a unique and great place to grow up, and I hope it still is.