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Life on the frozen Great South Bay

Newsday reader Valerie Policastro skates on the Great

Newsday reader Valerie Policastro skates on the Great South Bay near her home in Massapequa around 1958. Credit: From Valerie Policastro Credit: Newsday reader Valerie Policastro skates on the Great South Bay near her home in Massapequa around 1958. Credit: From Valerie Policastro

My teeth chattered as my ice skates glided over frozen ripples on the Unqua River. Despite the tides and wind-driven waves, the air was cold enough to freeze the saltwater. The resulting bumps in the surface meant rough going for those seeking perfect form, but who needed perfect?

This was Massapequa in the early 1960s, and I was perhaps 10 years old. My family’s Cape Cod was among the first homes in Nassau Shores, on the Great South Bay. Much of the shoreline was still undeveloped and covered with seagrass.

As I skated, I had no idea what the temperature was, but the cold wind seeped through my layers of wool and cotton. There was no Thinsulate or UnderArmour in those days, and my sweat formed an icy film next to my skin.

I liked to skate upriver, where the narrow channel cut off the gusts. I came upon neighbors looking into a large hole cut in the ice. Hand over hand, one of the men pulled up a long pole with a steel arrow at the end that held a few writhing eels. Like koi in ponds, the eels became sluggish and more catchable in the cold. They were a delicacy even in 1960, so the men were heroes of sorts in local homes, restaurants and fish shops.

The ice was several inches thick. There was no danger of falling through, except where it thinned near the shoreline and turned into frozen snow that could cave in. While skating, we’d pick up speed and leap from thick ice to the sandy beach. Unfortunately, this dulled our skate blades.

My favorite skating activity was to create miniature neighborhoods. When the snow left an unskateable coating, we’d shovel connector roads and name imaginary locales to make believe we were grown-ups running errands, going to church, etc.

Farther out in the Great South Bay, the ice changed from white to steely blue as it approached open water. There, the currents were too strong to freeze. So, when skaters joined hands for “crack the whip,” we made sure to safely fling the last person toward the shore.

There were times when our ice games coincided with the crack of rifle shots. It was open season on geese and ducks. In the 1950s and ’60s, hunters sat for hours in the bulrushes waiting for a flyby. We shouted as we played to let the hunters know where we were.

The river ice, which rose and fell with the tides, was tough on docks behind our homes. Unless someone used a newfangled water circulator, or “bubbler,” around each piling, the rise and fall of the ice heaved the pilings and upset the planking. We were not allowed on the docks, despite the fun that could be had walking on them. After the last freeze, our family joined neighbors in getting a group discount from the dock and bulkhead repair company to have the thick mud dug and the pilings realigned.

I loved all the seasons of our little house on the shoreline, and each one was my favorite as long as it lasted.

Reader Valerie Policastro lives in Miller Place.