Haliburton resident Linus Gervais plays hockey on a backyard rink made by this father, Mike. Mike said he’s discovered using a torch is more effective than using water to flood his rink to smooth it out. Submitted by Mike Gervais

Canadian rites of passage for rink makers

By Darren Lum

There are few images more iconic than skating on a lake, surrounded by a blanket of snow, set against a stand of trees that stretches off to the horizon, or on a rink a few feet from home in the middle of a Canadian winter.
With the restrictions related to this time of the pandemic, outdoor rinks have taken on greater importance for not just the opportunity they present for physical activity and development, but as a method of escape for Highands residents of all ages.

Talk to enough people, who have made their own ice skating pads, and it’s clear everyone has their own tricks for success. Some will buy kits for a few hundred to a few thousand dollars and others will resort to ingenuity and experience from failures to successes guiding the way. The one thing that seems to drive everyone is family.

Long-time builder of skating pads Eric Edwards of Maple Lake has built backyard rinks and lake rinks ever since his adult son who now has four children, was a boy. From his experience, he believes timing is key to having success.

“I’ve been up here long enough to know that ice conditions aren’t good until after the fifteenth and eighteenth of January,” he said. “Nothing is safe.”

He continues, “Even if you’re building one in your backyard just the fluctuation [of temperatures] from Dec. 20 to Jan. 20 it’s up and down like a yo-yo. Temperatures aren’t constant. Most people who build rinks in their backyards put in the liners, which gives them a grace period, but it still thaws and freezes, thaws and freezes. And you just can’t get a good hard surface. You want the ice pretty thick. What we got out here right now [on Maple Lake] I would say is eight to 10 underneath – good ice I got there,” he said.

Specific to his lake, he said is to build a rink that is at least 15 yards from shore, if possible.

There are times the ice on his lake can break away, he said.

“What happens is it breaks away from the shoreline and the water table rises, and as it rises then the amount of ice that is out on the lake the weight of that drops and you get an ice wall from your shoreline that comes up to a peak of about three feet. Then it just snaps. It comes up to a point and you have to climb over this ice wall to get on your ice surface,” he said. “The same thing has happened in the middle of the lake when we get these ice walls that come up. It’s just the weight of the water,” he said.

He’s had to build “ice bridges” to allow for passage from the shore to the rink.
He’s happy about being on the lake when remembering the efforts he had to go through to build a rink in his backyard when living at his last residence across the lake, where there was less sun exposure.

Back then he used 50 gallon barrels, transported by his pickup truck, which he then used to flood the surface rather than using the water at his house to avoid draining his well.

Edwards said making a rink on the lake is easier.

Other than the fuel for the snowblower to clear the snow on the lake, he said there’s not as much resources, such as water and hydro, required.

Part of his preparation on the lake is he levels the ice surface first, followed by using his homemade mini-Zamboni, which employs a beer cooler to hold the water, set on a platform with heavy duty caster wheels, which were re-purposed from moving snowmobiles around a shop.

At the back, below the drain for the cooler is a towel that trails behind the contraption to smooth the surface down.

One piece of advice, he said, is to be cognizant of when to clear the snow from the ice and when not to.

“Your powdered snow on top of ice will insulate it and maintain that glaze as long as you don’t get a warm day. You leave it. You don’t shovel your rink everyday. If the temperatures warm up, you got to get the snow off. The day you get the snow off let the sun dry out the surface and then just do a quick Zamboni on it and you’re good to go,” he said.

He laughs about how anyone with a full time job should probably avoid making rinks, but he loves doing it and enjoys the process and the work in maintaining it.

The rink really is a communal thing to share, whether it’s for his four grandchildren or for his neighbours.

“That’s the reward. You have something people can use. I let other people use it. It’s satisfaction for me that I’ve gone out,” he said. “You haven’t shovelled your driveway, but you’re out shovelling your rink. Does that make sense?”

Haliburton’s Mike Gervais has been making a rink for his school aged children for three years, but rather than water he learned to employ a concentrated heat to smooth out his rink surface.

He remembers how his first year he didn’t really do anything.

“We had a freeze-thaw event that created the ice rink for us and then I just sort of maintained it from there, but not having access to indoor water, I burst a pipe. And then the next year, I did it with a tarp, but didn’t buy a thick enough tarp and we put a hole in it. I had to get water out again and burst the other pipe. This year I built a proper frame for it and made sure it was level just out of two four-by-fours and then I bought an eight millimetre thick tarp that was designed for ice rinks. Because I don’t have access to water I didn’t want to burst another pipe so I sort of decided I would buy a propane torch. So what I do is take this propane torch and skim the surface with the torch. It creates enough water to fill in all the grooves from the skates. We don’t have to worry about water again,” he said.

He warns anyone making a rink to not use an outside tap when the temperature drops below negative 10 Celsius. “I learned that the hard way,” he said.

Others who can access water from inside the house don’t run the risk of a burst pipe.

Gervais remembers the torch idea came from having a conversation at the arena with Haliburton’s Brad Park, who also has a backyard rink. The conservation revolved around resolving the imperfections of his 18 x 18 rink that were caused by a freezing rain event, which led to the idea to use a heat a source to melt down the imperfections.

He adds with a torch it only takes a day to smooth out the imperfections.
Close to 20 years ago, before his career in education, Gervais worked part-time at the home of the Windsor Spitfires, the Windsor Arena where he operated the Zamboni. He said the torch helps to mimic the smoothing technique of an ice clearing machine.

“That’s what the torch does for you. It gives you the warm water. That’s just my little hack. I’m sure other people do it too. Didn’t find that anywhere,” he said.

It helps, he said, to have everything in place for the rink before the snow comes, which includes the eight millimetre tarp base and the surrounding boards.

“Some people will pack down the snow and do different things like that. But because I did it before the snow came it was really easy to work with,” he said.

From his online research, he learned to “buy a tarp that is four feet wider and four feet longer at the minimum than the dimensions of your rink. That’s where I made the mistakes in the past too. You need the big overhang because then you can tuck it in and complete those nice edges. If you buy a tarp with the exact dimensions of your rink it doesn’t work because you don’t have the overhang to create that,” he said.

He encourages everyone to make a rink.

“If you have a flat space it’s not that hard and it’s great. This only cost with lumber and a tarp … under $150 and we’ll be able to reuse the lumber,” he said.

“I say go for it,” he said.

Gervais passed on his backyard rink knowledge, including using a torch to neighbour and first time ice rink builder, Adam Brind, who was also a father that did it for his two children, a four-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter.

Although he wishes his children used the skating rink more this year, he hasn’t been discouraged by that or the time he’s invested about doing it again next year.

“I would do it again for sure. It’s been fun and the kids have been able to keep up with their skating. My son was learning how to play hockey so we’ve been shooting the puck around. It’s just been nice to have. It’s just another winter activity. I mean we really got into cross country skiing this winter because there’s not a lot to do. We’ve been trying to get them outside as much as possible,” he said.

His advice to other new ice makers is to be prepared for a lot of work and to make sure to include lights as part of the setup.

“The night skating is a lot fun, right? That’s half the day now. The winter time it gets dark at 4:30 or 5 [p.m.] so it’s fun to go out there at night to shoot the puck around,” he said.

When asked about comparing his work life with his first foray into ice making, he said things like building a tree house or making a rink are welcomed as an escape to work with his hands.

“That’s my yoga. When I come home for the weekends from working all week I just like to keep my hands busy and my mind free,” he said.

Like Edwards, Mike Hamilton is at home with his rink setup on a lake, which is steps from his house overlooking Mountain Lake.

Although bringing in large volumes of water isn’t necessary on a lake like a backyard rink, there is considerable time still invested.

“After working nine hour days I’d go out and spend two hours after work to get it good and then you wake up the next morning it’s covered in snow again. It’s a reset there almost every day after a while,” he said. “That’s the hardest thing you fight. The balance.”

The earliest he’s had a rink in his nine years of making one was early-December, he said.

He remembers seeing water out in the middle of the lake when he had a rink ready, which was located close to shore where it is only a foot deep. A season can last up to five months, ending at the end of March, he adds.

The perfect conditions for a flooding of the rink, he said, is when the temperature is a little below freezing for the start of the flood and then negative 10 after during the night. However, a snowfall overnight though can undo his efforts.

“It almost makes it like a curling rink where it makes a rough surface,” he said.

Hamilton said it’s a tricky balance to make ice like you’d find in an arena because when it’s too cold the water from the flood will freeze too quickly to be smooth.

He’s learned to not flood the ice too much.

“A lot of people flood them like too much. When it freezes and then some of the water dissipates through the snowbanks and stuff like that you have air pockets under the ice so the right amount of water is key for certain conditions for sure,” he said.

The game changers for him in achieving smooth ice is owed to a couple of things.

One is the powered sidewalk sweeper he bought three winters ago – a weed wacker with a brush on it.

It’s proven to be far more effective than a shovel at removing all the snow from the ice. He admits the sweeper was a high cost item, but it has paid off in terms of eliminating the creation of slush during the flooding if there is any snow left on the surface.

The other is the recently made Ham-Boni – a take off of the first three letters of Mike’s surname and the last four letters of the Zamboni. Hamilton said he was inspired from an online research to build it. He re-purposed a barrel to hold the hot water, which rests on a garden cart that has the ability to hold 800 pounds. Attached to the barrel is a hose, connected to a shammy that trails behind to smooth the ice as the water drains out. He said the Ham-Boni can complete two floods until it is empty.

With heavy volumes of snow, he’ll use a snowblower and then finish clearing the surface with the sweeper and Ham-Boni for floodings, and for floodings requiring more water will use a pump.

Hamilton said his ice surface area has remained close to the 50 x 25 feet of what he started with nine years ago. He has added elevated lights on two by fours staked in the ice. What’s helped this year are the compacted snowbanks. To his chagrin, his children ran their snowmobiles up and over the snowbanks. However he’s learned these actions helped to compress the snowbanks into solid retaining walls so when he floods the rink the water stays contained instead of leaking out.

He adds his children have actively helped him with the rink over the years.

For all the effort and time Hamilton doesn’t regret any of the investment he’s put in for something that everyone enjoys, whether it’s his children, neighbours, his wife or himself.

“It’s a lot of work. I do it for the kids to use and I do it for the exercise for myself as well. It’s nice to be outside in the fresh air too because my normal job I’m not outside as much as I’d like to be obviously,” he said. “I like the outdoors. I like being outside. The cold doesn’t bother me.”

He adds he’s worked hard to be able to have a home on the lake.

It just makes sense to embrace all the outdoor opportunities it affords such as snowmobiling, ice fishing, Nordic skiing and skating.

Hamilton’s friend Brad Park doesn’t have the expansive quality of the lake, but still derives pleasure from being able to provide an outlet for his children.

Park said his backyard rink started as an 8 x 10 area five years when the children were learning how to skate. He said his ice surface has grown more and more and his efficiency every year has improved.

“As they get older it just seems to get bigger and bigger every year,” he said.
He adds the rink is 30 x 40 now, which is as large as it will ever be.

Park expresses frustration with how fluctuating temperatures can hamper progress.

“Four of five days to make a rink turns into like two weeks,” he said. “It goes from minus 23 [Celsius] and then two days later it’s plus 3 [Celsius] so it’s hard to get it going. Once you get it going and you have a base you’re good.”
He said the ideal temperature range is negative four to minus eight to flood for a smooth surface.

“It seems to work out good. Even cold water works out just fine,” he said. “Give it a good scrape and a shovel and then lay the water to it so it turns out really good. We don’t use hot water. We just use cold water.”

His water source is his outside tap, but he makes sure to only flood for twenty minutes at a time with two hour intervals to avoid running his well dry.

If he could start again with the knowledge he has acquired making ice for the past five years, he would tell himself to not start making ice too early in the season. He adds it’s important to look at the weather forecast.

“Or you’re going to throw all your work out the window,” he said.

The ideal, he said, is for two weeks of at least negative five to negative 10.
During the pandemic, the children are out on the ice 80 per cent more than other years, he said.

“This year it’s the saving grace, right? When school was out there wasn’t a whole lot to do so [they] go out to the rink even if it’s for only a half an hour, two or three times a day or 40 minutes. It kills a lot of time,” he said.