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Cross-country skaters search for the 'wild ice'

In Europe, long-distance skating thrives. Could it catch on in North America?

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The big chill: On a Vermont lake, a woman tries her hand at the sport of Nordic skating.

Toby TalboT/AP

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Alford Lake echoes with sound. The deep rumble of ice slowly shifting. Whirs from a two-cycle ice fishing auger. Steady, soft swishes from four men in helmets gliding gracefully across the ice as they harness the chilly southwesterly wind.

Unlike many skaters in North America who rely on indoor rinks and Zambonis, these ice athletes depend on the weather for placid "wild ice." Today is a good day for sailing, but when the winter gusts halt, making travel in homemade ice boats difficult, the men strap on Nordic ice skates – a cross-country ski boot fitted with what looks like the heel edge of a 17-inch chef's knife.

The Swedes call it "långfärdsskridskoåkning" and the popular northern European long-distance skating has, until recently, been a relatively obscure passion in North America. "I think for the next couple of generations, people will just be discovering it," says Jamie Hess, who runs a Nordic skate shop near the New Hampshire border in Norwich, Vt.

Eight years ago, Mr. Hess built a groomed outdoor track, a trail open to anyone with the skates. It proved instrumental in introducing the sport to more athletes across the Northeast, where individuals had been partaking in the fringe winter sport alone or in small groups.

"We're making it a social activity," Hess says. "That's something that has existed for generations in Europe but didn't exist here." Now, a couple local clubs have sprung up to organize outings. Hess's virtual clubhouse has swelled in membership.

In Sweden, local government councils regularly clear long skating paths on the ice for long-distance skating. On sunny winter weekends, thousands of Swedes flock to the nation's small lakes and the number of skate club leaders alone reaches into the hundreds.

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