Some of the best memories I have from growing up are from playing pond hockey. I used to spend hours and hours of my evenings as a kid playing with my friends and family at the neighborhood rink near my school. I practically lived there from the time the ice was ready in December until it became too warm to skate in March. During that time, I’d play after school and after practice, well into the evening; even sometimes after the lights were turned off and the warming house closed.
There’s really nothing else quite like it. I always loved the feeling of the cold air on my face, contrasted starkly with the heat from exertion. I used to play until I was so exhausted I could hardly move, but still couldn’t resist taking another shot, scoring another goal, or stopping my opponents, some of whom were many years older than I.
Although the days of spending every evening or every waking moment out at the rink are over, playing pond hockey is still one of my favorite winter activities. It’s a huge reason why I love the sport, and why I was able to play through college. Unfortunately, it’s been a poor couple of winters for good outdoor ice. The window for outdoor ice has seemed to be shrinking lately, and is undoubtedly a byproduct of climate change.
It may be hard to imagine, but good skating ice isn’t easy to make. Ice is finicky. It changes quality with the slightest change in the weather. If it’s too cold when the water freezes, then the ice becomes liable to shatter when you try and skate on it. It cracks off in big, thin sheets the size of dinner plates, sliding across the surface of the ice as you try to move.
If it’s too warm, the ice will look cloudy, becoming a pale white color instead of the ideal shade of steely grey. Pockets of air will form that can turn the ice to slush. Blades sink in, and skating begins to feel more like wading than flying. Sometimes these air pockets form from the ground up, and areas of the ice will break off and sink when you put pressure on them.
It also can’t be snowing when you flood the rink with water. If snow falls while water freezes, the ice will turn out gritty and pebbly rather than smooth and solid.
It takes lots and lots of time and patience to make good ice. It can take a few weeks of consistent flooding to get a rink started in the winter, and a couple of unseasonably warm days can undo all that work.
This winter was a particularly bad one for outdoor ice. People say it’s the fault of the El Niño, but I don’t believe that’s the only force at work here. We’ve had El Niño’s before. This year was different. It was one of the worst years for outdoor ice that I can remember, and I don’t want it to happen again, but I fear climate change will only make things worse, not just for outdoor ice, but for skiing, sledding, snowshoeing, all winter activities. Without major changes, who knows how much longer we’ll be able to skate outside in the wintertime? Who knows if the next generation of Minnesotans will even have that opportunity?