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Jim Duke | Author

Building Your Backyard Skating Rink

It requires a ridiculously stupid amount of time, work, patience, alcohol consumption, and the freezing of one's nibbies off to create any sort of backyard ice skating rink. But it has also proven to be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding things I've ever done. Sure, it seems like the simplest thing in the world, just lay down a liner, fill it up with water and wait for a cold night. Can't be anything easier than turning water into ice in sub-zero temperatures. So easy in fact that everybody and their dog will be offering all kinds of helpful advice. I've never received more advice on anything else I've ever done. The friendly suggestions will continue from the time you first even think about making an ice rink until the last scrap of ice has finally melted off and given way to the inevitable snow mold that always follows too much ice over grass (minor inconvenience considering the benefits).

Honestly, it seems that everyone is an expert on this subject – "Just let the hose run all night in sub-zero weather" (wishful thinking); "set a fine spray sprinkler in the middle for even application" (big crater where the sprinkler was surrounded by a field of ice pimples); "use river water instead of tap water because it's already colder and closer to freezing" (insignificant compared to the several score increase in caloric release required for the heat of fusion, i.e., going from 32 degree liquid to 32 degrees solid); "hot water freezes faster because it creates a thermodynamic the momentum of rolling a ball down hill" (none of us backyard Einsteins really understands this one, but it might actually be true if you can afford the hot water bill) You'll have plenty of time to consider all this great advice while standing out in the sub-zero darkness of 2 AM with a hose in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other.

I have enviously listened to stories of places like northern Michigan where folks will turn a fire hose on a football field for a couple of nights and have an instant hockey rink. That's not the way it works in these parts. Here in Colorado Rockies, although the altitude helps provide the necessary chill, the thin atmosphere and typically clear skies produce intense solar radiation. Lots of shade is critical, so it helps to have a fairly large mountain on the south side of the rink to block the winter sun.

Even with a liner there's a lot more involved than one might think. You better get a liner specifically designed for ice rinks; heavy duty, and bright white to reflect sunlight, thick and opaque enough to avoid dark, solar collecting spots from underneath, large, and seamless, difficult to move, and hard to store in the off season. Regardless of quality, they will be easily punctured, difficult to repair, and very expensive. After all that, you still can't just lay it out and fill it up and wait for it to freeze. You must lightly spray water down slowly in very thin layers. Anywhere water puddles up before it freezes, you'll get air bubbles (dissolved air in the water??) that create pockets and rough surfaces that exacerbate themselves with subsequent layers.

Having tried every technique in the world, and having as a child, watched my father try everything in the world before finally installing a flat, curbed patio designed for this use and still having troubles with it (must run in the family), I've concluded that packing the snow down firmly without a liner, and then slowly layering on water, works as well as anything. It also allows a lot more flexibility in your design.

My skating rink can hardly be called a rink. It generally follows the outline of any relatively flat terrain in my back yard within the winter shadow of the ridgeline to the south. It encompasses a couple of large spruce trees, goes through a gate and along a fence with a trail going around the fire pit by the river. It then continues along until it reaches the driveway where it turns up a slight grade and through another gate back into the yard again. A very difficult design with a liner.

There's not a whole lot of very flat land in mountainous terrain so my ice amounts to more of a terrain park than a skating rink. Once you've tried it, however, you'll never again be satisfied with skating on a flat rink with a round, rectangular, or any regular sort of shape. We even put in a couple of banked turns and sometimes a jump or two. There's a huge home-court advantage when playing tag, crack the whip, or asymmetric hockey just knowing where all the bumps and slopes are. We suffer quite a few more injuries than on a regular rink I suppose, especially for those trying to stand still on a slope, but it seems a small price to pay for the added excitement. We have had some of the world's best skating parties.

The trick is getting the snow properly packed. This is best accomplished by boot packing. Skis or snowshoes work to get started, but it should eventually be hard enough to not even leave a track when you walk across it. You don't want the first thin layers of ice to crack as you walk around adding new layers. The perfect surface would be like the shiny, white, slick, hard packed snow of a parking lot, only without any dirty, dark spots. Any dark spots will slowly rot the ice away down to the ground, even in indirect sunlight. I've actually tried using cars to pack the snow before. Even trucks, tractors, and loaders. But I could never get one clean enough to prevent droppings of road grit, mag. chloride, grease, or grunge of some sort on my clean white snow. I even use smooth bottomed foot wear, often slippers, when watering my ice to eliminate the chance of shedding any sort of dirt that may be hidden in the treads of shoes with better traction. It's a little more dangerous on wet, slick, irregular ice, but well worth the precaution.

One year, when I was feeling excessively lazy and wealthy, I even rented a fifteen-ton roller packer like the ones they lay asphalt with. What a joke that was. First the packer drum just iced over and started caking up with snow like rolling up a ball for a snowman. I finally got it scraped clean and sprayed it down with silicone to prevent the snow from sticking. This made it so slick that the drum would just spin around without moving the machine forward. I then engaged the vibrator thinking that might help bounce it along somehow. Well, any construction worker knows how those vibrators will shake the ground for many yards around the compaction site. It's a whole lot worse on frozen ground and even over the roaring vibration of the many tons of steel under my butt, I could hear the windows rattling in my solid log cabin. It's truly amazing I didn't blow them all out. The folks at the rental shop really shouldn't rent one of those things to just any yahoo that thinks they might need one. It took forever (and my 930 Caterpillar loader) to get that thing dragged out of my yard and back on to the trailer.

Anyway, some of the best times and all of the best exercise come with the manual labor of packing and then ultimately maintaining the rink. While I've never been known for cleanliness or being meticulous about much of anything, I've always been a real stickler about my rink. Some have even suggested this to border on obsessive behavior. Ridiculous! But I don't allow coffee, hot cocoa, red wine, or other dark, staining drinks anywhere near it, only cheap, watered-down redneck beers with little pigment or alcohol content (antifreeze). And while I'm always concerned about the many injuries that tend to occur on ice, I'm particularly quick to deal with injuries involving blood, which due to the dark color as it oxidizes and the high salt content, is very damaging to the ice.

I shovel my ice practically before it even snows to prevent anyone, including dogs, deer, ducks, or even rodents from leaving tracks that might freeze into deformities. The slightest breeze sends me scurrying around the ice picking off any leaves, seeds, pine needles, or other debris that might have blown onto my rink where they will absorb heat from sunlight and cause pock marks. Not having television, which largely explains having enough time for follies such as ice rinks, I've become addicted to I rejoice any downward swing of the jet stream and plan my evenings around potential sub-zero weather to build up my ice base. I suffer anxiety attacks with predicted warm fronts.

The early morning hosing has become my favorite time, when even the coldest of water forms beautiful clouds of steam and mist in the morning light across the sub-zero ice. The ice keeps up a lively conversation creaking, cracking, popping, pinging and groaning in reaction to the temperature differential between the water and the ice. It sounds as if some divine masseuse is at work on the ice. My hose does not just patch or repair or cover the damage of routine wear, it makes all injuries completely disappear to look like perfectly clean, unflawed, virgin ice. I can magically erase all the wear and tear and scars of yesterday with my hose. As I move slowly across the ice to keep my water layers smooth and even, my mind speeds up and travels far beyond the limits of my rink allowing my hose and I to float across the terrain and sooth away the pains and wounds of the whole world just as easily.

One morning, looking out over the river through the foggy steam of my hose in the rosy hue of pre-dawn, I made eye contact with a Bald Eagle flying upstream and experienced a spiritual exchange just as a huge, groaning crack shot across the ice, under my feet and right up through me. It was a euphoric moment where I could feel that my entire body and soul had been readjusted and relieved of all scars, pains, and burdens of the past. I dropped my hose (carefully off the ice so as not to create a divet), turned my eyes to the sky, and raised my arms upward to share my ecstacy with all the heavens as I walked back across my wet ice in my smooth slippers to turn the water off. That's when I saw the brilliant flash!

I woke up seeing stars. I think I might have suffered a mild concussion and possibly fractured my coccyx with the impact on the ice. As I regained consciousness, I first felt the back of my skull and inspected my fingers to make sure I wasn't bleeding. Then I rolled over and looked to make sure I hadn't damaged the ice with the impact of my head.