It's 6:30 p.m. on a cold, clear, early January night. Wearing his snowpants and a hand-me-down Boston Bruins jersey over several layers of fleece, my 4-year-old son Ethan sits in a plastic, kid-sized Adirondack chair in a shoveled-out area of our backyard. He's chatting away excitedly as I lace up his hockey skates.
The light from a pair of 250-watt halogen bulbs, mounted to the side of our garage, cuts a swath through the darkness, illuminating the untouched, opaque surface of the small ice rink we've spent the past week building, and months talking about.
"Hurry up daddy," Ethan says.
Ready for some hockey, Ethan Knight, 4, stands on the small backyard ice rink his father built behind his home in Saranac Lake earlier this month.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
"Hold on. Almost done," I tell him.
After tying his skates, strapping on his knee and elbow pads and buckling the chin strap on his helmet, I finally say "OK, all set," and Ethan stands up. I hold his hand as he wobbles across a small carpet and steps up onto the ice for the first time. He reaches down, picks up his hockey stick and takes a few steps.
"How is it?" I ask him as I sit down to put on my skates.
"Awesome," he says with a big smile. "It's really smooth."
It was two years ago, while writing a story about Saranac Lake's rich history of outdoor skating, that I first got the idea of building an outdoor ice skating rink in our backyard.
I was fascinated to learn that Saranac Lake had hosted numerous world-class speed skating events on Pontiac Bay in the first half of the 20th century. I was also touched by the stories of people who grew up skating on neighborhood and backyard rinks, and on the huge man-made outdoor rink at Petrova field during the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Call me nostalgic, but building a backyard ice rink felt like, in a small way, I was continuing that tradition and connecting with Saranac Lake's skating past.
There were plenty of other reasons for doing it, too. I was curious about the science of making ice and the engineering involved in building a rink. More than anything else, it just seemed like something fun to do, for myself and my kids. I mean, what could be more thrilling for a 4-year-old who's just learning how to skate than having an ice rink right in your backyard?
I started researching outdoor ice rinks this fall, talking with friends and family who've built rinks before, and doing lots of Googling. I was amazed at how much information is out there. There are countless YouTube videos and websites that describe how to build backyard rinks of various materials, sizes and shapes - from small, rectangular ones to huge rinks with full size boards that look like they could host a minor league hockey game.
I discovered through several websites that, for a couple hundred dollars or more, I could just buy a backyard ice rink kit. The company NiceRink, for example, sells a 20-by-40-foot "Rink in a Box" for $340 that includes a heavy duty liner, brackets and other ice rink-building essentials.
It was tempting, but I decided not to take any shortcuts. I'd start from scratch and build my own rink. More importantly, I wanted to keep the budget for the project in the $100 range, or less.
We live downslope from the backside of Mount Pisgah, so finding a flat area to build an ice rink on our small property wasn't easy. Initially, I thought the front yard would work, but when I started scoping out the site in late November, I realized its slope was too great.
Why does that matter? The simple reason is that if one side of your rink is lower than the other, you'll have to fill it with, say, 5 inches of water in the deep end just to get 1 inch to cover the shallow end. It's doable, but a big, sturdy retaining wall would be needed to hold back all that water, and that's more construction than I had in mind.
Eventually, I settled on what I thought was a relatively flat site in our backyard and sketched out the design for a roughly 16-by-20-foot rink.
The next day, Ethan and I took a trip to Curtis Lumber in Ray Brook to buy eight 10-foot lengths of 2-inch-by-6-inch pressure treated pine, which would form the frame of our rink. Some people I talked to have used 2-by-2s or even sections of PVC pipe cut in half for their frame, but I wanted our boards to be at least six inches high so they're tall enough to account for any difference in slope at our rink site.
Finding a liner was the next step. I initially thought we could use one of the many big blue tarps that we own, until I read online that using a colored liner will attract more sunlight and cause your rink to melt sooner. Ultimately, I decide to buy a heavy-duty, white, 18-by-24-foot polyethylene liner online from a company called Tarpaflex. It cost about $40, but I figure we can get several years of use out of it.
As we waited for the weather to turn cold enough to start assembling the rink, Ethan, his 3-year-old brother Ryan and I kept busy by shoveling snow from the rink area. It was pretty easy work until Dec. 27, when the first major snowstorm of the winter dropped up to 2 feet of snow in the yard.
Finally, on Saturday, Jan. 5, with the forecast calling for several days in a row of below-zero overnight temperatures, we started to put the rink together. Working in our garage, I attached two 10-foot lengths of 2-by-6 boards together using metal frames to form one of the 20-foot-long side boards, then repeated the process for the other side board and the two end boards.
With Ethan's help, I carried the boards out to the backyard and arranged them in place. At that point, I realized that because the site wasn't completely flat, several sections of board aren't flush with the ground. Using some mulch and leftover sand from another project, I filled in and leveled out those spaces as best as I could.
My neighbor, Enterprise outdoors and sports writer Mike Lynch, who stopped by to help, suggested using snow to fill in the spaces along the bottom of the boards, which we did. With Mike and Ethan's help, we then screwed the ends of the boards together to form our rectangular frame. We then pounded wooden stakes around the boards to hold them in place.
The tarp was next. We unfolded it and draped it over the frame and secured it to the boards with clamps. We tried to be careful not to puncture the tarp, as that could spell disaster once we fill it with water, which is what I did later that night.
Most people I've talked to fill their rinks and resurface them late at night since that's when it's the coldest and there's less wind, which can affect the formation of the ice. I just couldn't see myself getting up at 2 in the morning, and it seemed calm and cold enough (single-digit temps) by 7 p.m. that night, so I decided to fill the rink.
I attached a long garden hose, which I had been storing in our basement so it wouldn't freeze up, to our outside spigot. After running the hose out to the rink, I went back into the basement to turn on the valve that controls the water flow to the spigot. When I got back outside, the rink has started to fill.
This was the moment of truth. I realized that my suspicions about not having a perfectly level site were true. The water started to pool in a low area along one side of the rink. It wasn't until that area had about 2 to 3 inches that the water began to cover the rest of the tarp. I kept my fingers crossed.
About 45 minutes later, the water in the low-lying areas was about 5 inches deep, while the rest of the rink had about 2-and-a-half inches. I figured that's enough, so I shut off the water and hauled the hose back to the basement.
We have ice!
After two nights of near-zero temperatures, the ice was about 4 inches thick. Normally that'd be good enough to skate on, but since one end of the rink had 5 inches of water, we still needed to wait before testing it out.
The third night, however, brought snow, which had me worried. When we got out to check the rink in the morning, there was a good 2 inches of snow on the ice. Since I couldn't walk on it yet, I used a roof rake and a shovel to clear the snow, then swept it off (as far as I could reach) with a broom. Given the small size of our rink, it only took a few minutes.
Following a couple more nights of cold temperatures, and more shoveling and sweeping, we finally had solid-enough ice to skate on. Or at least, that's what it seemed like.
After watching Ethan knock the puck around for a bit, I finally got my skates laced up and join him. The surface was so smooth and perfect, it felt like a crime to cut across it with the blades of my hockey skates. We played a little one-on-one hockey, which was almost comical given the small size of the rink and the fact that I'm about as good a skater as Ethan is, but it was fun nonetheless.
We were just about to call it a night when suddenly I heard an ominous cracking sound. A big gash opened up across the middle of the rink. We quickly got off the ice and headed in for the night, figuring we'd need a couple more nights for the rink to freeze back over.
Unfortunately, things turned south. The thaw of the weekend of Jan. 12 and 13, which brought rain and 50-degree temperatures, arrived. By that Monday, we lost all but about 2 inches of ice.
Over the next week and a half, however, the weather turned colder, and the ice started to get thicker, giving me my first opportunity to flood the rink for resurfacing. There are plenty of different ways to do this. For $179 from NiceRink, you can buy a galvanized steel ice resurfacer, attach it to your hose and drag it across the ice. Several websites have information on how to build your own resurfacer.
Flooding the rink with a thin layer of water was the approach I decide to use. Some people do this by putting a hose or a sprinkler on the ice, but that can leave marks in the surface. Instead, I used the "garbage can" method, which simply involves filling up a plastic garbage can with water and spreading it out slowly and evenly over the ice. It worked perfectly the one time I've done it so far.
We were finally able to get back on the rink last weekend. Given the Arctic spell that's taken hold of the area this week, I'm sure we'll be skating for a while now.
While most people told me building a backyard rink would be a lot of work, so far it hasn't been as time-consuming as I feared. Maybe that will change if we end up having a winter like last year and I have to battle several thaws, but I sure hope that's not the case. For now, it's just shoveling and sweeping the ice, and resurfacing as necessary.
When the ice does melt in the spring, we'll drain the water, tear down the rink and wait anxiously for the mercury to drop again.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.