Juneau on ice

Skaters enjoy cold winter outdoors while contemplating new roofed ice rink

Posted: Sunday, March 17, 2002

Locals go to all sorts of extremes to skate in Juneau, a town with unpredictable ice and no formal rink.

Skaters shovel snow, flood playgrounds and parks, pump water onto lakes and squeegee puddles so they'll freeze flat.

Ice enthusiast John Ingalls used to get up between 2 and 5 a.m. to spend hours spraying water on low-cost rinks at Harborview Elementary School and the Capital School playground.

"That's the most difficult thing about this," said Ingalls, a Juneau inventor and entrepreneur. "Everyone tells you you're absolutely crazy."

Ice-making will no longer be the job of volunteers when the Treadwell Arena ice rink opens next fall at Savikko Park. If everything works out, the no-frills, city-run arena will include refrigeration, shelter, seating, rest rooms and a Zamboni to maintain the ice. Skating, hockey and curling will be among the activities available.

The area will be a big change for skaters who spend most winters building up ice patches, dodging snowpiles and waiting for lakes to freeze.

"When I came here I thought, 'No ice rink. That's a bummer,' " said Ed Plumb, a National Weather Service meteorologist skating on Twin Lakes during the recent cold snap. "Here you get snow on ice and rain on ice and it gets crusty."

Plumb and many other skaters said they'll continue to enjoy lake skating when weather and ice conditions permit. Jay Query, who works at the Douglas Island Pink and Chum Hatchery, said he particularly enjoys the wide-open ice of Mendenhall Lake.

"You can skate for almost 20 minutes in one direction," he said. "But I think I'll enjoy that rink on rainy days."

Mendenhall Lake and Auke Lake have been popular skating areas for years. Gravel-removal operations near the Mendenhall Glacier left Dredge Lake and other bodies of water that were also used when conditions allowed.

Development of Twin Lakes, a human-made freshwater area built after the mid-1970s construction of Egan Drive, gave locals another place to play on the ice. And improvements to a Riverside Drive pond at what's now known as Rotary Park added another option.

About a dozen years ago, Ingalls decided the covered playground at Harborview School could make a good, small ice rink. After getting informal agreement from the principal that it would be a good idea, he got up one morning at 2 a.m., grabbed a hose and started making ice.

"It took me about two or three hours and I had a beautiful ice rink," he said. "No one complained and I got all kinds of compliments."

The rink ran for part of two winters with varied success. Warm weather melted the ice and cold, dry wind evaporated the frozen surface. City officials decided it was too much of an insurance risk. And Ingalls got tired of getting up early in the morning.

"I created a monster and if they were going to give me any flak, I just didn't want to deal with it anymore," he said.

Ingalls and others later set up a small ice rink at the Capital School playground. More people helped and he only had to get up at 5 in the morning to work on the ice. But concerns about damage to the park's grass and other issues ended the effort.

Since then Ingalls and his ice crew, which includes U.S. Forest Service staffer Marc Scholten and attorney Joe Geldhof, have focused on Twin Lakes. They drill a small hole in the ice and use a gas-powered pump to flood the surface with a thin layer of fresh water.

"Someone with a big squeegee skates and squeegees it level," Ingalls said. "If you have pools that form, it doesn't work."

Ingalls also bought an all-terrain vehicle for plowing snow and designed people-powered, extra-wide snowshovels for use on the ice. He also sometimes sets up a generator and lights.

The efforts are widely appreciated - and used.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, more than a dozen hockey players sped between wood-and-netting goals, the scritch-scratch of their blades leaving white marks on the ice as they slapped the puck back and forth across the lake.

A little later, a small wooden sailing iceboat on runners tacked up and down the lake powered by gusts. The same day, two children on skates stretched a sheet between them to catch the wind.

And on another afternoon, couples casually skated across the lake, some followed by dogs, while a pair of mothers used small wooden chairs to help their children learn how to keep from falling down.

"They can sit in it when they get tired," said Mary Kay McNaughton, helping 5-year-old Jasper skate while pulling 2-year-old Reuben on a plastic sled.

Another volunteer-built skating area is at Melvin Park. For years, neighbors and others have set up, shoveled and otherwise maintained a patch of ice in the park next to Riverside Drive in the Mendenhall Valley. A core group of about a half-dozen volunteers creates and maintains the area, said John Bohan, a city engineer who has worked on the skating area.

"It's just a matter of putting down thin layers of ice to put down a flat surface using fire hoses and garden hoses, all sorts of creativity involving water," he said. "If you build it too thick you get ... rough ice."

This late in the winter, it's hard to keep enough ice to make it worth skating, Bohan said.

"Unfortunately, at this point we can't make enough ice for what the sun burns off each day," he said.

Such battles against the elements will be reduced once the Treadwell Arena opens. City Parks and Recreation Director Kim Kiefer said the $3 million facility should open in November and operate seven or eight months a year.

"For the next six to eight months it's going to be a construction zone," she said. "It will be a bare-bones facility. From a distance it will look just like a big storage building."

Skates will be rented and lessons offered, either by the city or a nonprofit skating group. Admission is expected to be $2 per session for children and $3 for adults. Hockey groups and others will be able to rent the area for $100 an hour.

Funding comes from the city, the Douglas Fourth of July Committee and grants. The city just won a $500,000 grant from the state Department of Community and Economic Development, giving it more than the $2.5 million needed for the first phase of construction, Kiefer said.

"It's a reality now instead of being something out there in the distance," she said.

Levi Ott, a University of Alaska Southeast student, looks forward to indoor skiing.

"I miss the rink. I miss the crowds. I miss being on a team," said the Wisconsin native, wearing a white jersey with "Jamesville Hockey Club" emblazoned in black letters.

Tying up his skates on a recent afternoon at Twin Lakes, Ott looked out at the bumps, cracks and frozen footprints and cross-country ski trails. Twin, Mendenhall and Auke lakes are fun when they're hard and clear, but the ice can be rough.

"Right now there's a lot of weird tracks out here," he said.

Despite the uneven surface, most Twin Lakes skaters said they've had a good winter. Long cold snaps allowed more hard ice to form than in many recent years.

"I've been over here at lunch three days in a row," said Fish and Game worker Tom Paul, skating with his 5-month-old puppy Jasper.

Paul said he'll use the rink when the weather's bad.

"But if there's good ice outdoors, I'd much rather skate here," he said.

Ingalls said even once the rink is built, he'll keep working to keep outdoor ice open. He likes the scene at Twin Lakes, where skaters bring a picnic table and an insulated cookout setup onto the ice when it's hard. While parents play hockey, kids cook hot dogs and skate the loop and other snow-free areas shoveled by volunteers.

"I don't like being in rinks. It's fun to play a good game of hockey, but I don't like the feel or the smell," Ingalls said. "There's really nothing like skating outdoors."

Rich Poor, a Douglas Fourth of July Committee member and longtime ice-rink backer, said there's no doubt the Treadwell Arena will bring skaters inside. And the predictable, seven- to eight-month-a-year frozen surface will offer options not available on outdoor ice, such as hockey leagues, children's lessons, figure skating and curling.

"On a normal, average Juneau day, the weather is gloomy and dark and gray," Poor said. "But you'll walk in the door of the Treadwell Arena and it will be bright. People will be out there having a good time on the ice."

Ed Schoenfeld can be reached at eschoenfeld@juneauempire.



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