Chippewa Herald * February 17, 2005

Backyard ice rink is fun -- for a week, anyway

by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist

A few weeks ago, our annual family igloo project was looking doubtful due to lack of snow this winter. We built last year's igloo in February, only to see it degrade into a burbling pile of slush a week later. We decided we wouldn't go through the effort again unless we could build it at least by January.

This year, early January did not bring much snow, but there was another asset coming down the pike: subzero weather! My kids and I decided to take advantage of the approaching frigidity, and go for a backyard ice rink instead of an igloo this year. Here is our ice rink diary.

Tuesday, January 11 -- We decided tonight to launch the project. It was a balmy 35 degrees, but the forecast called for 15 below by Thursday. My kids and I spent tonight readying the rink area. We had been told to build up a snow bank around the perimeter, but with only an inch of snow on the ground, there wasn't much to scrape up. We laid down plastic sheets in 8-foot widths, and curved them up over some PVC pipes that we used for the border. Then we waited for the mercury to plummet.

Thursday, January 13 -- PERFECT! It was the coldest day in a year, so I started filling the rink with water. Unfortunately, the overlapping sheets of plastic weren't watertight -- after at least an hour of watering, the water level still wasn't much higher than the surrounding ground.

Friday, January 14 -- My son Benjamin and I figured out how to "seal" the ground against leaks, by hooking up the sprinkler. This created a nice thin coat of ice all over the rink.

Saturday, January 15 -- Finally, a whole day to work on the rink and finish it! Still subzero temps, and we were now using the "Greg Thorson" method of building up the ice. That advice from my favorite banjo-playing engineer was to fill up large garbage cans with water, then dump them out all at once. This puts a nice even layer across the whole rink, without the holes and hills that come when you simply let the hose run. We're home free now; all we have to do is keep filling those garbage cans!

Later that day -- Oops. Yes, I did remove the hose every time I was done using it, to prevent freezing up. But I thought it was okay to leave the little nozzle on the spigot that makes it easier to get the hose on and off. Big mistake: at subzero temperatures, drips accumulated on that nozzle and froze over, even after only three hours in broad daylight.

I got out the blowtorch and frantically defrosted the frozen faucet, then continued filling the garbage cans. That's when my four-year-old, Simon, wandered out and said, "Daddy, I think there's a leak in the basement."

Dutifully marching downstairs to see if I could find the dripping, I opened the door to a stunning scene -- this was not a leak, it was a firehose! Water was screaming out of the pipe under high pressure, drenching my workbench and leaving a deepening pool of water on the concrete floor. I quickly closed the shutoff valve, rendering the faucet useless. Looks like we were done with this ice rink idea.

Sunday, January 16 -- sons Ben and Jasper persuaded me to carry on. With the backyard faucet out of commission, we could tap into the faucet in the front of the house, they explained, and run a longer hose through the garage. The downside of this is that we'd need to roll up the entire hose and haul it downstairs every time we were done, to prevent it from freezing. But they were persistent, so we tried that and got a few more valuable layers on the ice.

Later that day -- Oops. My lovely wife pointed out that the front hose had been leaking the whole time, and we now had half an inch of solid ice on the front sidewalk. Oh well, we still have six days to get that chiseled out before hosting 50 people at our house for a friend's surprise birthday party. I guess we are done working on the rink. Again.

Saturday, January 22 -- Stu Krause to the rescue: Stu insisted on helping me fix the burst pipe in the basement. It took five days, but this got us going again with the backyard faucet, only ten feet from the rink.

Friday, January 28 -- A RINK IS BORN! With regular applications of the Greg Thorson method, we were finally able to iterate on the layers until we actually got a real ice rink built. Just in time, too, as we had a dozen kids using the rink tonight, during a cast party at our house after our church choirs sang at the Heyde Center. It was a big hit!

Friday, February 4 -- Darn, everything is melting. But we've had a good week's use of a genuine ice rink. During that time, we bought clearance hockey sticks and pucks at Spring Street Sports, and had a great time skating in our own backyard. Too bad it couldn't have lasted longer.

When will these blasted mild winters end so we can get back to the endless blizzards of old? In the meantime, maybe we need to figure out a family project involving slush.


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