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It’s all part of the yearly ritual, even the part when I declare: “This is the last year.”
The feeling starts creeping in at roughly the same time each fall. I see the leaves starting to pile up in our backyard. The trees shed all their colours, and I have to face the truth: It’s time to start thinking about setting up the rink.
Though this winter will mark year 5 for our homemade backyard rink, I still feel like a rookie when I’m planning and preparing, wondering how this year will play out. I’ve come to terms with the worrying – I’ve realized that fretting over all the things I can’t control (the weather, the water meter, the drainage) is part of the ritual. So is the part when I declare that this is the last year.
I can clearly remember the first year I decided to try it. After we bought an old red-brick house in 2005, I spent the next two winters looking out at the snow, debating if the yard was level enough, and if I was clever enough, to put in a skating surface that would run away from the house when it finally melted.
I was concerned I would end up making a colossal mess of the whole thing and flood our basement in the process.
I remained undecided for those first two years, mostly because our two daughters were only toddlers, but I also felt I needed some kind of signal to let me know that it was meant to be. Strangely enough, that signal came in the form of a section of copper piping I found in the basement.
In all the reading I’d done in the two years of planning, there was one constant: You needed a water source that wouldn’t freeze up. In Ontario, that means the faucet needs to be indoors.
Taking a closer look at the network of pipes in our basement, I found a dead-end pipe that led nowhere but had a tap about eight inches before the end. When I asked the clerk at the hardware store about it, he smiled and said: “It’s perfect. Put a pressure fitting on that. If it’s close to a basement window, you can just throw the hose in and out easily. Sounds like you’re good to go.”
And, as simple as that, I was sold.
That first winter I didn’t bother with boards or a tarp. I just did it the way my father had three decades earlier – I packed down the snow and ran water from the garden hose attached to that fitting in the basement. I ran a string of white Christmas lights around the outside of the yard and in the trees.
My enduring memory from that first winter was standing in the ghostly light, usually after midnight, frustrated at how rough the ice was. I felt like a winter version of Ray Kinsella, trying to build a frozen field of dreams.
Try as I might, I could not get it to even out. I remember being out one night, trying to use the hose and broom to funnel water into the low spots, convinced I would get it right eventually.
That year, you couldn’t really call it a sheet of ice. It looked more like the surface of the moon. Our six-year-old tried to skate on it, then stopped and looked at me.
“Is it supposed to be this rough, Dad?” she said. “It’s too hard to skate. Can I just walk on it in my boots?”
My wife was more encouraging. “Keep trying. It will even out eventually. And even if it doesn’t, the kids will still enjoy it.”
Of course, Kristeen was right. Even in that first year the neighbourhood kids liked coming over – though not to skate. They’d put their helmets on and get into the empty Rubbermaid tub that held the hockey sticks, then have me catapult them across the ice like circus performers shot from a cannon.
Year 2 saw major improvements. I asked two of my older, wiser work colleagues what I should do. I knew they’d built rinks for their own children, and both were science teachers to boot.
One of them suggested going with a tarp, and the other swore by using both a tarp and a 100-foot length of Big O tubing. He said the tubing was key – it was pliable and would conform to the lay of the yard better than lumber. Once you had the tubing down and the tarp inside it, everything else would be much easier.
He also suggested I haul out two large garbage pails. Once you have a good base layer of ice, he said, you can just set up the hose to fill one of the buckets while you wait inside in the warm and just come out every 15 minutes or so to switch the hose to the other pail and dump out the full one. “Let gravity do its thing,” was the way he put it.
That year, even though I didn’t get my first flood down until New Year’s Eve because the weather was so warm, marked the beginning of what I deem the “modern era.” The ice was finally smooth and level.
Over the next few years, other adjustments followed. All three of our children can skate now, and I’ve realized I will need to put full boards on the side next year. (Too many pucks go missing until spring otherwise.)
And sometimes, when I’m flooding the rink late on a cold night in January or February and I can hear the muffled cracks as the ice settles, I find myself wondering if this will be the last year after all.
Jim McGowan lives in Lakefield, Ont.