Juneau's ice masters

Posted: Wednesday, January 30, 2008

One of Juneau's winter draws for skaters is playing on the frozen lakes and ponds.

Ice conditions can change drastically with the weather, but a handful of locals enjoy maintaining the ice and promoting safety so skaters can take home good memories.

Marc Scholten, a longtime hockey player, has cleaned Juneau's outdoor ice for about 10 years.

"Maintenance consists mostly of shoveling and occasionally flooding the ice," he said. "A bunch of us donated enough money to buy a 2-inch pump, which sucks the water out of the lake and sprays it through a fire hose onto the ice. We got a little sled with runners on it that help us tool it around. Then we use squeegees to run the water around so it freezes on a nice layer."

Joe Sorenson and Chris Childs both live near Rotary Park on Riverside Drive and enjoy looking after the pond's skating condition. Before rain washed away the deep snow two weeks ago, the duo worked diligently to clear the ice and make necessary repairs.

Childs motored around on his four-wheeler piling up a big snow bank, while Sorenson broomed away the remains.

While cleaning the ice, the duo also inspected for safety.

"We're clearing a second rink location because we discovered a methane hole in the ice over there," Sorenson said. "Then when we cleared this area we found a bad spot."

Elevations and depressions in the ice make for a bumpy and dangerous region. A skater can be propelled on to the ice if he hits a bad patch of the frozen stuff.

"Our plan is to get some buckets of hot water to spread over this region (of bumpy ice)," Sorenson said. "That'll melt it down, fill in the gaps, and clean it up a bit. If all goes well, we should be skating on this within a couple of hours."

Unfortunately, before their labor produced any fruit, the air warmed up and the rains moved in, ruining the chance to skate.

Such is life in Juneau. But with recent temperatures well below freezing, more ice has been forming.

Besides the four-wheeler method of snow removal on the ice, there is the less-practical and old-fashioned method of shoveling.

Some years ago, Scholten began constructing large shovels out of dysfunctional street signs donated by the Department of Transportation. The makeshift shovels scrape away the blankets of snow to reveal the dark ice.

Recently at Twin Lakes, the late afternoon landscape appeared devoid of life apart from two lone souls gliding tracer-like patterns in the dull gray region. The two roved back and forth near a wooden goal posted at one end of a makeshift ice rink.

The skaters, T.J. Preston and James Gamez, acknowledged the importance of the sign-shovels.

"In the history of Juneau's outdoor hockey, those oversized shovels really made a big difference," Preston said. "They do three to four times the amount of work a normal shovel can do. ... And even with the street signs, cleaning the ice is no small task."

In addition to shoveling makeshift hockey rinks, Preston said people use the sign-shovels to make large, winding skating paths around Twin Lakes.

John Ingall usually makes the big, long skating lanes that Preston referred to.

On Jan. 17, he cleared an area in front of the playground at Twin Lakes with the four-wheeler in preparation for a future flooding.

Pointing out long cracks streaking across the ice, he said, "The cracks occur when the ice is too thick and it expands."

Scholten discussed the criteria of ice safety.

"Four inches of clear black ice is the standard thickness of safety they call for. Some people say five inches is good for a snow machine, others say six," he said.

Auke Lake and Skater's Cabin at Mendenhall Lake also entertain outdoor sports and recreation enthusiasts.

Gamez, a 2007 Juneau-Douglas High School graduate and former captain of the hockey team, said he formed his best memories of outdoor hockey at Melvin Park.

"Before the days of Treadwell (Arena in Douglas, which was built in 2003), the guys from the Fire Station used to go out and flood the park for us," he said. "They would turn on the lights until nine or ten at night, like they do for baseball, so we could have hockey games. After they quit doing it, my friends and I would look out my back window and remember where we learned to ice skate."

Preston said, "Treadwell's great, but everyone still likes to get out in this great scenery and do some dangling."

Gamez defined dangling as practicing stick-handling skills and learning how to deke, or fake out, the goalie.

"One of the only downfalls of outdoor hockey is shooting the puck at the goal too hard and losing it in the snow bank," Preston said while shaking his head in disgust. "Over the years I've probably lost 50 pucks in those things."

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