Curling club continues tradition in Tri-Lakes
SARANAC LAKE — Throwing a heavy stone down a sheet of ice may be one of the most basic things a human can do to pass the time.
While our northern neighbors are often thought of as curling masters — Canada has five gold, three silver and two bronze Olympic medals since 1998 — the ancient sport has a local following and a lot of history in our area.
The Lake Placid Curling Club has had a presence in the Tri-Lakes for nearly 100 years, dating back to 1917 when the Saranac Lake Curling Club was formed. There was so much interest in the sport that a curling rink was constructed. It’s now part of Madden’s Garage on River Street.
The club has come in and out of existence and bounced around a little bit. At various points there were curling clubs by different names, including the Sno Birds and the Pines. But 35 years ago, the group settled on Lake Placid since the 1980 Winter Olympics had brought a lot of nice, usable ice there.
A couple of years ago, the club started meeting, practicing and playing at the Saranac Lake Civic Center because ice time in Lake Placid was difficult to come by.
“They curled in Lake Placid throughout the years until four years ago,” said Darren Dalton, president of the curling club, “but for various reasons moved back over here. Ice time has a lot to do with it when you’re fighting a lot of different entities for ice. We get two-and-a-half hours on Sunday afternoon.”
This year is the first that the civic center has painted curling lines under its ice, and the club now enjoys five sheets to play on. A sheet in curling is the playing “field,” and it stretches anywhere from 146 feet to 150 feet in length, which is most of the length of the ice rink.
According to the club website, the first curlers in the Tri-Lakes curled on Pontiac Bay on Lake Flower, near where the Winter Carnival Ice Palace stands each year, and then moved to Moody Pond when it became the Pines Curling Club.
Amber McKernan, a member of the club, talked about the history of the former rink that’s now a Madden’s building.
“The story is that William Distin (a local architect) said, ‘If you can get me 40 members, I’ll build you a curling club,'” she said. “They ended up with 64 members in that club. And it was indoor curling, (but) it was natural ice. So they had to wait until it was cold enough to put in the ice.”
Local curlers at the time were involved in setting up matches for the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, but by the early 1940s, financial hardships forced the club to sell its building.
From the 1950s through the early ’60s, the club curled at the 1932 Olympic Arena in Lake Placid before interest waned and the club shuttered itself and put its stones in storage.
Then in 1981, avid curlers Ed and Barbara Brandt moved to the area and dusted off the stones. They formed the Lake Placid Curling Club, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.
The sport harks back to Scotland, where ancient curling stones have been unearthed. The Wisconsin Historical Society published a paper in 2006 that showed early curling stones had been inscribed as far back as the early 1500s, with the world “curling” first appearing in writing in 1620.
Learn to curl
The Lake Placid Curling Club hosts several “learn-to-curl” sessions each year in an effort to get more members, but also to open up the world of curling to those who may just have a passing interest. Curling is simple in that it requires stones, brooms and ice, and that’s about it. But like any sport, knowing how and being good are two very different things.
The club has hosted three learn-to-curl sessions already this year, and Dalton said turnout has been good. At a learning session a couple of weeks ago, there were about 10 newcomers, as well as curlers from around the North Country and even from as far away as the Capital District.
“We had our first learn-to-curl last week, and I see a lot of people returning, and hopefully they’ll join the club,” Dalton said. “It’s really laid back. It’s good people. It’s a challenging sport that you don’t have to be a hockey player type (to play).
“A fat guy like me can do it,” he laughed.
Roger Steinbrueck echoed the sentiment that it is a friendly sport that welcomes newbies. Before and after each match, curlers shake hands and say “good curling” to each other. Several people also noted that curling can induce thirst, and post-game trips to imbibe healing beverages are well attended.
“Everybody’s ego goes down the drain because of the ability of a curling stone not to do what it’s supposed to,” Steinbrueck said. “Every week it’s different ice and a different game. Because of that, everyone is very humble. You just play the game for what it’s worth.”
Steinbrueck and others compared curling to golf, where you’re competing against other people, but you’re really playing against yourself.
“It’s like putting. Sometimes you can sit there and do a 30-footer and fall over because of it, and then you miss a 6-footer,” he said.
Steinbrueck started curling about a decade ago. He said it was fun from the get-go, and improving only makes it more enjoyable.
“When I teach people, I say, ‘You don’t have to worry about learning this in a hurry,'” he said. “It’s all a matter of learning it slow and having a good time while you’re doing it.”
Sarah Wardner, another local resident who has been curling for about 15 years added to that.
“I just love the camaraderie,” she said. “It’s a quirky sport. I like that. It’s just fun.”
How to play
A curling match usually involves eight to 10 sheets, or turns from each team from each end of the ice. Each team starts with eight stones, and the four players from each team take turns sliding two of the stones down the ice in an effort to get as many stones as possible in what’s known as the “house,” or bull’s-eye.
The stones are now all relatively uniform in size and weight, unlike during the origin of the sport, when flat-bottomed river stones were used. Today’s stones weigh between 38 and 44 pounds, and have a plastic handle affixed to the top. Although the stones are nearly a foot in diameter, the bottom is concave, leading to a small surface area actually coming in contact with the ice. To further reduce drag, a curling sheet is “dimpled” before play. Dimpling involves sprinkling drops of water on the ice to create an uneven but still flat surface.
Curling is simple yet subtle. There is a surprising amount of strategy involved in placing stones as blockers and trying to knock the other team’s stones out of the house.
As stones start to accumulate in the house, scoring becomes sort of like horseshoes, where the closer stone negates an opponent’s points. It’s possible for both teams to score points in each round.
One of the most recognizable parts of curling is the sweeping. As each teammate takes a turn throwing the stone, three other players on each team are involved in the effort to score points.
The round doesn’t start with someone sliding the stone. It starts with someone standing in the house, directing the thrower on where the stone should end up. As a thrower releases the stone, a slight twist is given to the handle to make the stone slowly turn in one direction as it moves down the ice. This twist is the “curl,” and it can make the stone slowly move in one direction or the other.
After the stone is thrown, the person in the house will direct the sweepers on when to sweep the ice in front of the moving stone. Sweeping doesn’t make the stone go faster, but it does make the stone go farther as the sweeping creates friction on the ice, which provides a thin layer of water for the stone to glide over. Sweeping will also limit the amount of side-to-side movement from the curl. The curl is a key part of the play, as players can use the curl to position the stone behind a protective blocker stone.
League play and tournaments
The Lake Placid Curling Club hosts the learn-to-curl events to drum up new blood, so to speak, but its league season actually runs from November through March.
Dalton said with the limited time they get on the ice each week, league play tends to move a little faster than during the learning sessions. The group has a laid-back feel with new people around, but the league play is more competitive.
While the group meets most Sunday afternoons, Dalton said they’ll take a few weekends off around the holidays.
In addition to the local league, club members have played in tournaments around the Northeast and in Canada as well.
A bonspeil is a type of curling tournament at which many curlers meet up and enjoy the camaraderie. Wardner said she enjoys the little round-robin tournaments immensely.
“It’s a great way to get out and meet other people,” she said. “Bonspeils are a lot of fun.”
For more information on the Lake Placid Curling Club, visit www.lakeplacidcurling.com.