From the standpoint of public safety—and tourist management—the prohibition on skating makes perfect sense. The Tidal Basin is supposed to showcase a national monument, not an attractive nuisance. Last week, the Park Police had to send in a SWAT team to rescue a seagull that was frozen in the ice on the Tidal Basin. The bird was released on its own recognizance.
But I also know what my father and grandfather would say about such laws. To them, the "No Fishing" and "Alcoholic Beverages Prohibited" signs along the Tidal Basin would be more than enough proof that skating is not expressly forbidden. They might even argue they were doing the public a service by double-checking ice safety—first by skating on it themselves, then by inspiring a park ranger to chase across it to arrest them.
I may never be half the man my father and grandfather were, but I am determined to be every bit the fool. So this weekend, I decided to take the plunge. First, I called the National Park Service's C&O Canal ice-skating hot line. A recorded voice began by declaring, "This message is valid for the 2004-05 winter season," stressed the importance of "self-rescue," and ended with the disturbing words: "Falling into any depth of water during the winter can lead to hypothermia, drowning, and death. Beep." The voice also reluctantly admitted that ice skating was allowed "unless specifically closed by signs."
People who see the glass as half-melted might not be encouraged by a three-year-old recording ending in certain death. To any glass-half-frozen type, however, that message screamed, "Come on down!" And sure enough, the ice on the canal was so thick, there wasn't a ranger in sight. My dog trembled like she'd called the hot line, but my son and daughter enjoyed our Hans Brinker moment.
That still left me the Tidal Basin and the Potomac to conquer and a legacy of foolishness to uphold. Break the law, or break the ice? In the end, I decided to take my chances with nature, passing up the Tidal Basin and dipping my toe in the Potomac instead.
On the path down to the river, I felt a twinge of doubt after passing a man who had two things I did not: a wetsuit—and a kayak. But doubt soon turned to superiority: If there's one thing dumber than trying to skate on a frozen river, it's trying to kayak on one.
At the shoreline, I tested the ice with my hockey stick. It was 3-4 inches thick, right on the border between safe and sorry. Still, a few steps couldn't hurt. I tiptoed a few feet offshore, listening for cracks. I went a few more feet, pausing to wonder what the people on shore who had stopped to watch were hoping would happen. That stretch of the Potomac is about 500 yards wide. At the rate I was inching, I'd reach the other side by nightfall.
With a wetsuit on and Wilbur Mills at my heels, I might have braved the crossing. But I was satisfied with my own foolishness after the first 15 feet. Just before I turned back, I saw a sign on the bank upriver: "Stop. Dam Ahead. Dangerous Undertow. Get to Shore." I scoffed at the summer folly of trying to outswim a riptide. Even so, getting ashore seemed like solid advice year-round. ... 12:48 P.M. (link)
Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007
When I'm 1964: The far right used to inspire fear, not pity, but these days it's hard not to feel a little sorry for the conservative faithful. For a movement accustomed to morning in America, the hour is closer to midnight. First, a Republican Congress betrayed them for pieces of silver. Then a Republican administration ran their ideas into the ground. Now, when they need a conservative messiah, the bundle on their doorstep is Rudy Giuliani, who endorsed Bill Clinton's assault-weapons ban and Mario Cuomo's re-election campaign at the height of the Republican revolution in 1994.
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An All-Female Mission to Mars
As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.