THIS WINTER'S steady diet of unseasonably warm, gray days has made me nostalgic for the snow and colder temperatures that have marked winters past. Sure, it's easier to commute to work in rain than snow, but beyond that there's little benefit to a winter that behaves more like an early spring. This is particularly true if you have young children. The prospect of running outside on a gray day to play in a cold, damp back yard does little to pique a child's interest. On the other hand, if you add six inches of snow to that same yard, your kids will look at it as if it has been transformed overnight into Chuck E. Cheese's. Last year, when winter was acting like winter, I took full advantage of a mid-season snowfall and used it to help build a back yard skating rink for our two young boys.
Why a back yard skating rink? I've always been an avid hockey fan and was looking for a way to introduce our then-5-year-old twins to skating. We didn't belong to the local sports association, and so couldn't use its rink. Drawing on my high school earth science classes (I knew they would come in handy) I reasoned that a small, shallow rink would have a decent chance of freezing, even if temperatures were only moderately cold. I was ripe for the challenge and decided to have a go at it during the next cold snap.
I began to research methods of building a rink when suddenly the temperatures dropped into the low thirties. Around here cold snaps are short, as in snap your fingers, so I knew I had to pounce on the opportunity. On the first 30-degree night I headed to the Howard County Library with Neal, one of my sons. I'd once found a book on traditional Swedish Easters there and now firmly believed that the library had a book on every known topic. We were not disappointed. A quick spin on the online catalogue pointed to the January 1995 issue of the Country Journal, which had an article that detailed just how to build a back yard rink.
The article was written by a fellow in Vermont who had been building rinks for over 10 years. The long and short of it was that you should buy some wood, cut it up, create a frame for your rink on the ground and line it with plastic. From there it was a relatively easy matter to fill it with water and let nature do the work.
There were some problems with the rink described in the magazine. For starters, the minimum size that he suggested was larger than my entire town house yard. So out of the blocks, I'd have a rink that didn't allow for graceful turns. Secondly, he put the materials price tag at about $400. This may have been a reasonable outlay for someone in Vermont, who was probably guaranteed by the elements 30 to 40 skateable days a year. But in Maryland, it was a lot to invest in a project that might not yield any skateable days. This concern was amplified when the writer mentioned in the article that you should start construction when you expect 10 or more days with temperatures in the low teens or single digits. I could afford no such luxury.
Uncertainty being the only given in my project, I decided to hold off on the materials outlay. This first year, I'd make my rink out of packed snow and cheap plastic dropcloths and find out if the idea would work at all. If I encountered any success, I'd upgrade next year. If it didn't, I'd still have my $400, plenty of money to join the local sports association for the winter.
The day following the first significant snowfall of the season (two to three inches), I set to work. I created a frame, or "boards" in hockey parlance, for my rink out of packed snow. I then cut up three dropcloths that I had purchased for less than $5. These I fitted to my snow-packed rink's dimensions. The overall size was a cozy 19-by-14 feet.
I then got out the garden hose and began spraying. I set the hose spray on mist and slowly waved it back and forth to cover the entire rink area. The first night's work was largely fruitless. The seams in the drop cloths, about which I had been warned in my limited readings, caused most of the water to leak out. But, a small amount of the water had stayed and frozen, creating the beginnings of an ice seal that would eventually hold the sheets together.
After several nights of "watering" my rink with limited success, I tried a different tactic. I simply laid the garden hose on one of the snow "boards" and let the water flow out slowly into my rink. Once I had it set up, I returned to the warmer confines of my home. Disaster. The next morning I saw that the water from the hose had created a channel down the middle of the rink. The channel had cleared the rink of any existing ice where it had traveled and also left the ice surrounding it brittle. I had no idea how to solve this dilemma. A break came when early the next morning it snowed a bit. I guessed that if I took the new snow, filled in the channel and watered it, it might act as a "spackle" and repair the problem. My son Charlie helped me as we furiously shoveled the melting morning snow into the crevice. (If you want a parenting challenge, try explaining to your 5-year-old why you're shoveling snow onto ice at 7 a.m. on a Saturday.)
It worked. I had learned something about the manufacture of home-grown ice and took it as the small victory that it was. Having now tried two methods of manufacturing ice, I moved onto my third and final approach: the sprinkler method. The sprinkler method immediately proved superior to the hand spraying method if for no other reason than it didn't require that I stand in the cold and wave a dripping hose.
My collection of plastic-lined puddles gradually came together and began to take on the appearance of a skating surface . . . on the moon. No matter how I tried, the ice remained riddled with nooks, crannies and the occasional crater. I longed for the glistening Zamboni'd surface that greets hockey fans at the beginning of every game. Knowing the basic premise of a Zamboni, I tried to make my own home version. I grabbed a bucket of hot water and a broom and tried to smooth the ice by sweeping the hot water across the surface. This worked okay, but required a lot more hot water than I had or than I cared to truck back and forth from the house. In the end, Mother Nature provided me with some assistance by melting the ice slightly during the day and then freezing it over at night.
Finally, after about 10 days of extensive grooming and nervous weather-watching, I had my rink. It was small, to be sure, and was also one of the ugliest skating surfaces I had ever seen. But it was skateable and it was in my back yard, and if you broke through it you would hit only plastic and grass. My two boys tried it out one weekday afternoon. They had been trumpeting the fact that they had a skating rink in their back yard to anyone who would listen, even before it was anywhere close to skateable.
The nooks and crannies that I had worked so hard to remove actually proved beneficial. They were great toeholds for the boys and allowed them to stand on their own for the first time. There were also some smooth areas that the boys could take periodic attempts at navigating. Most importantly to them, however, was the fact that we could readily walk hot chocolates to the wooden viewing stand (a k a our back deck) for them to enjoy.
Given the advance PR that the rink had received from the boys, we had a ready supply of skaters. One day one of the boys' kindergarten buddies came over and made her first ever attempt at ice skating. By the end of the day we had, by Maryland standards, a trio of seasoned back yard skaters.
As a pessimist once said, all good things must come to an end and so too did our rink. A spell of days in the fifties so completely wiped out our rink that it seemed almost hard to believe that it had been there. Mother Nature had reminded me why back yard rinks had never been all the rage in Maryland. We had, however, worked in five solid days of back yard skating.
The boys still regularly refer to "the rink" and feel no need to clarify as to which rink they are referring. If this winter ever gets off the ground, I've got my plans for the follow-up rink: wooden boards, a single plastic sheet for the lining, maybe even a tape recording of "O, Canada" before we take the ice. Anything to get us back yard skating again. Ellicott City writer Thomas Flynn has no plans to build a water slide in his back yard this summer.