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As winter melts away, the vanity projects of amateur ice-rink builders who poured their chilled blood, sweat and tears every night are slowly bleeding out.
Why have I done this? Why did I obsess each cold night, fretting over every crack and imperfection? Why did I increase my water bill, contend with the frustration of unpredictable weather and stress over constant, and endless, ice bumps?
Was it worth the effort?
“You’re the best dad,” people commented on Facebook. “Your kids are so lucky,” said others.
Well, they were missing the point!
I did it for one person – me.
I’ve always been nostalgic for hockey days gone by. The dedication and resourcefulness rink builders deployed before we relied on Google and YouTube to tell us how to do it. The authenticity and purity of playing on a simple frozen block of ice as they did so long ago resonates.
It’s the autonomy of not waiting for the Zamboni to finish, or watching the clock count down signalling the end of another manufactured competition. The innocence that one can simply arrive home, drop a school bag, take a few steps, tie-up one’s skates and go, lures me.
I spent almost a decade living in Ottawa. I loved the neighbourhood outdoor ice rinks one could find nestled in parks lit by street lights and managed by an army of community volunteers. The Rideau Canal was my playground; I skated so many kilometres, alone, just my blades cutting ice in silence. Admiring my breath as it left me, while I patrolled an anonymous paradise snaking through the city.
So I did it.
One night in mid-December, after the kids had gone to bed, I stood under the dim moonlight, the mercury nestling up against -20 C. I had a beer in one hand, hose in the other, and was about to bring my backyard to life. The wooden boards had been secured with small steel corner braces, the white tarp was unrolled on top of the snow-dusted grass and sat ready.
I went to work without a guarantee the weather would hold up long enough to freeze the water (three-inches deep at one end and eight inches at the other), unsure there wasn’t another tiny hole lurking somewhere on the tarp – I had patched eight of them the night before in a good friend’s basement.
After spending 15 minutes thawing the outside faucet by firmly squeezing a hot water soaked dish towel on the tap, the hose suddenly filled and roared to life. As the water danced on the tarp, I paced the perimeter of the rink. Within an hour or so it was clear – there were no leaks. The water would hold and the elements took over from there.
I’ve learned a lot in my three years of ice-rink building.
After starting with a leaky green tarp and packed up snow for boards (always use white tarps as they absorb the least amount of light), I can now identify and expertly correct shell ice.
I’ve snapped frozen hoses in half.
During one flood my second year, I left the hose on one spot too long, melting a hole right through the ice down to the tarp thanks to the power of the water stream.
I know the different results a spray or bucket flood will have on ice quality.
I’ve learned that brooms are better than shovels to remove snow and that wind can wreak havoc on ice smoothness.
I can expertly scrape ice bumps away on my hands and knees with a wall scraper, without damaging the surface.
But that’s just the physical, learned work. It’s the feelings that stay with me.
I now know that standing alone in -20 on a Saturday night as 8 p.m. turns to 10, and then midnight, all the while filling the rink, drinking beer and singing Tragically Hip songs out loud isn’t just a cliché – it’s liberating.
I can appreciate the power of Mother Nature and what she can do to the rink if you’re patient and let her wrap her arms around the surface to heal it. Her sun, even on cold days, can help slowly iron out a surface.
I’ll remember the nervousness I feel after spraying water and listening to the deep cracking sound echoing in the quiet night as the water meets the ice. You’re always unsure whether the cracking will penetrate the surface.
It’s about the pride I feel in watching my kids progress from barely standing to looking at me through their helmet cages saying, “Watch me skate, Dada!” – and off they go, just like so many other kids did before them.
My backyard is my canvas. There is a peaceful solitude in standing there in the frigid night looking at it shine.
I now feel connected to rink builders before me who also spent countless hours tinkering and fixating over each detail.
And, I’ve joined a community of rink builders around the world – on Facebook. Every day people share dozens of pictures of beautiful ice rinks. From places such as Malapardis, N.J., Regina, Moscow, Idaho and even Trondheim, Norway.
No two rinks are ever the same. But there is one common theme in the pictures. More often than not, there are no skaters captured – just ice rinks.
I know why.
It’s not because building an ice rink makes us better parents or because we’re strategically plotting our kids’ pro dreams. It’s because of the feeling, the pride, that sense of “I built that” when you catch a glimpse of the moonlight flirting with the freshly flooded surface through the window. You know you’ve created something special. Something alive. Something you’ll always remember.
Thaw gently my ice rink. Get some rest. Heal. We’ll speak again next year.
Adam Grachnik lives in Richmond Hill, Ont.