CALUMET, Mich. -- Crisp, white steam drifts up from every face as their breath hits the chilly early-October air. Roughly 20 Cadets of the North Star Battalion begin to lace up their skates as black skies still dominate the horizon.

In a land where hockey is king and ice time is always in demand, you take the ice whenever you can get it.

In this case, that happens to be 6:30 a.m.

The Calumet High School JROTC battalion, one of Cadet Command's oldest, founded in 1917, has been hitting the ice for 12 years to perform arguably one of the country's most unique color guard presentations.

When the Cadets take to the rink, the distinctive sound of several sharpened skates scraping across the ice echoes in unison through the silent coliseum as the patriotic citizenry of Michigan's Upper Peninsula copper country stands in respect as the stars and stripes glide by.

It is a highly synchronized special presentation of the colors that encompasses the whole playing surface and culminates in the center with several Cadets crisply saluting as they are circled around the flags with the national anthem playing.

Even visiting teams stand in rapt, awe-struck attention, turning in unison as the precession moves past them. Why skates? Why not just roll out red carpet and walk to center ice, as happens frequently in other venues such as the National Hockey League?

To answer that speaks to the heart of the Calumet community.

"Kids up here are born with skates on," said Carole Morris, senior vice commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3900 in Calumet. ""e cold is part of us. We have at least seven months of the year covered in snow and ice."

That is no exaggeration.

Calumet, nestled on Michigan's northern tip north of Wisconsin and next to Lake Superior, averages more than 200 inches of snow a year. That is more than famously snowy Buffalo (93.6 inches), Minneapolis (49.9 inches) and Green Bay (47.7 inches) combined.

A record year in the Calumet area produced more than 30 feet of snow.

"When the snow flies, hockey is played in the yards, in the streets, in the alleys, every- where," said Mike Hale, rink announcer for Calumet Hockey. "These kids are raised on ice, starting skating at 2 and most of them start hockey around 5 years old."

Entering the local ice rink, the Calumet Coliseum, a sign proudly proclaims it as the oldest indoor hockey rink in North America.

History greets visitors at every turn. Faces gaze out from 100-year-old weathered photo- graphs, giving a glimpse of the past and an understanding of the importance of the sport to the people of the region. Old sticks, countless trophies, ancient goalie masks and even a hand-pulled Zamboni further immerse one in the true elove of the game on the shores of Lake Superior.

The idea for a skating color guard began in 1999 when re- tired Maj. Michael Farley, the Calumet JROTC senior Army instructor, was sitting at a game.

"At that time, we didn't post at hockey, but we did at basketball and football," he said. "We started out on skates. There was no idea at all to walk; it wasn't even considered. Skating is a part of these kids, it was a natural fit.

"We combined the two passions of the area, patriotism and hockey. It made our Cadets feel and contribute to their heritage."

Some locals initially found the approach different, but quickly warmed to it.

"Vets were taken aback initially, but it was immediately obvious how hard they worked," said Gene LaRochelle, who is part of the local American Legion. "You can hear the commands, the scrape in unison. It's special.

"They combine the elegance of figure skating with patriot- ism. The crowd goes silent, and everyone is transfixed when the Cadets are on the ice."

Cadets have taken advantage of the opportunity to be on the team and apply what they have learned in their JROTC classes. The on-ice team consists of a minimum of 10 skaters, but events call for as many as 20.

They perform at every home hockey game of the Calumet High School Copper Kings, as well as the regional hockey championships, the occasional game at nearby Finlandia University and some figure skating shows. A more-enhanced and complicated routine is worked out for the skating shows.

"Skating color guard is the epitome of leadership in action within our JROTC program," Farley said. "Cadet leaders schedule practices, create routines, conduct training, maintain equipment, schedule and conduct events and solve problems."

The life-lessons and learned experiences of participating on the team are not lost on the Cadets.

"I've learned that not everything goes perfectly and as planned, and skating color guard has given me the patience and understanding of this," Cadet Dallas Jackovich said. "We may not get it the first 100 times we try, but if we're patient and determined enough, we will. And even if a routine doesn't go as planned on the ice in front of the community, it's OK. You improvise; make it look good, and stay confident. Then you get out there and do it again."

There are no specific prerequisites to be part of the team, including knowing how to ice skate.

"We take everyone, regardless of their skating ability," Farley said.

"It may take a little longer if they come in not knowing how to skate, but we can get them up to speed rather quickly."

Twenty-six students are currently on the team, and most get the chance to take the ice for at least three events. Cadets sign up for the various performances. They essentially try out at each practice and have to work on their skills until they are ready to hit the ice.

There have been mistakes, even a fall or two here and there. Cadet Amber Wade fell at the end of a performance in her sophomore year.

"I was so embarrassed," she said. "My team- mates surrounded me and encouraged me, and I got right back out there the next time."

The future is bright for the team. Cadet enthusiasm and community support promises the tradition will continue.

"We're happy with our progress over the past decade," Farley said. "But we're not going to stop pushing the envelope. We want to move faster on the ice, be more synchronized and be recognized at the state and national levels. We are hoping to post the flags at other levels of hockey within the next year."