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Skaters take to the ice on Mendenhall Lake

Come on out; the ice is fine, regulars say

Posted: November 19, 2013 - 1:01am
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Laurent Dick, left, shoots out of range of Thomas Schwartz during an afternoon pickup game of pond hockey on the west side of Mendenhall Lake Monday.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Laurent Dick, left, shoots out of range of Thomas Schwartz during an afternoon pickup game of pond hockey on the west side of Mendenhall Lake Monday.

As soon as Odin Brudie and Frankie Pillifant caught word that the ice was safe, they made plans to go to Mendenhall Lake. Year after year, it’s a tradition for the two to skate the lake as soon as it freezes enough.

"We saw something on Facebook and said, ‘Oh, we need to go skating tomorrow,’” Pillifant said.

At about 4 p.m. Monday, at Mendenhall Lake’s Skater’s Cabin Picnic Shelter, the sun had almost set and the air was a crisp 14 degrees, not including a generous wind chill factor. Brudie, Pillifant and one other skater, wearing a blinking headlamp for safety, were all that remained of the outdoor enthusiasts that flock there each day around lunchtime once the season starts. Many come to play a pickup hockey game, Brudie said.

“These are the stealth skaters,” Pillifant said, laughing.

Brudie said there’s no official press release or announcement when outdoor skating season begins in Juneau — word travels from friend to friend, often through email chains and on Facebook. As many as 600 people can be found on Mendenhall Lake on busy days, Pillifant said.

Despite the popularity of skating at the lake, Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center Director John Neary said the U.S. Forest Service’s official stance is that no lake skating is ever safe — there’s no way to be sure the ice will hold. That being said, Neary himself skated Mendenhall Lake on Monday, and said the safest place on the lake is near Skater’s Cabin. The cabin was built in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps as a warming hut for outdoor skaters, according to Forest Service archaeologist Myra Gilliam.

“In my skating, I stick closer to the Skater’s side,” Neary said.

It’s especially important, Neary said, for skaters to stay away from the mouth of the Mendenhall River, Nugget Falls, the glacier itself and any streams flowing into the lake — all places where the ice is the most fragile. Brudie said skaters should also avoid icebergs.

Skating at the lake started about two days ago, Pillifant said. The start of this year’s season is about average, said Marc Scholten, a former Forest Service employee who studies Juneau’s ice. Last year’s outdoor skating season was a record-setter,
beginning Oct. 23, he said.

The past two days have been marked by unusually cold weather, according to data from the National Weather Service. Sunday’s high and low temperatures of 25 and 17 degrees were both 12 degrees below normal for Nov. 17.

Monday’s high and low temperatures were 17 and 15 degrees, 20 and 13 degrees below normal for Nov. 18, respectively.

National Weather Service meteorologist Tom Ainsworth said the weather feels even chillier than it is because of the ample wind. While recent temperatures have been below average, they’re not breaking any records, despite what your frozen fingers may tell you, he said.

“The record low for (Sunday) is 3 degrees above zero,” Ainsworth said. “It’s been as warm as 50 degrees above zero. So, it’s definitely cold, but it’s not record-setting at least.”

Despite the recent cold snap, Scholten said other skating spots around town are not quite ready for action. He said Twin Lakes could use a couple more nights to firm up. The standard is four inches of black ice to be safe, he said.

“I wouldn’t go on there yet,” Scholten said. “You just have to check the ice before you do that.”

Only the pond near the Juneau Pioneer Home can handle skaters right now, but be careful around the weeds, which retain heat and make surrounding ice weak, he said.

“You can actually break through,” Scholten said. “It’s safe for me, because I’m willing to gamble with the weeds, but I saw fresh ice skate marks on it this morning.”

• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.

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