How to Build a Backyard Ice Skating Rink
You can. You should. It will become part of your family lore.
It was my wife’s idea. In winters past we had seen our friend Craig, a 50-something father of three, turn his small backyard into a magical ice rink, complete with strings of lights and homemade ice lanterns. He’d been doing it for years.
“We should do that,” Hilly announced one day in January. “Let’s ask Craig how.”
Every relationship has a dreamer and an accountant. On this matter I was the accountant. I didn’t want to be, I just was. By nature, I’m careful to commit. I fear failure, so I’ve learned to preempt it. “Is it going to ruin the grass?” I worried aloud. “Will it flood the basement? I don’t think it’s cold enough.” My heel-dragging on the rink became emblematic of my personality of inertia and grew into a point of marital contention. Hilly works full-time, but we both knew my schedule could accommodate a project like this. Still, I ruminated.
The universe intervened when I ran into Craig and his wife, Shelly. They were off for a hike up the mountain. I asked Craig if it was cold enough to make an ice rink.
“Sure it is,” he said. He tapped a small patch of ice in the road with his hiking pole. “You see that? That’s a little ice rink right there.”
I asked more questions, angling for some pessimism, some sense that the timing was wrong, that it wouldn’t work, that I should wait until next year. But Craig is an optimist. There’s nothing he can’t learn, and nothing he won’t try. He is very much like Hilly.
“It’s a great idea,” he told me. “I’ll swing by this evening.”
We were halfway through dinner when Craig arrived. He had walked from his house, about a mile away, and he was ready to get to work. I set down my fork and followed him into the backyard.
It was a dark evening, about 25 degrees, and Craig was dressed in a sheepskin jacket and a hat with earflaps. He looked like Ernest Shackleton. “You’re going to need a hose,” he told me, pacing around in the snow, looking down like he’d lost something. “And a sprayer. You have a sprayer?”
I rummaged through the garage and emerged with a hose and a sprinkler.
“This should work,” Craig said. He connected the hose to the faucet and the sprinkler to the hose and then walked around like an apparent madman, watering the snow.
“Now we pack it down,” he said.
We started stamping the snow with our feet. Hilly came outside with our two boys, Theo, 4, and Julian, 1. Craig and I dragged the kids around on sleds. When Craig said we needed more weight, I got on the sled with both kids and Craig towed the three of us around in circles. Finally, we all linked arms and shuffled in a line like tantric dancers.
“Oh yeah,” Craig was saying. “Oh yeah. This is nice. This is going to be nice. It’s like a piece of art, really. You’ll see.”
Three hours later, we had compacted a large 30' x 20' oval into a rippled field of white. Craig sprayed it lightly again and showed me how to blow the water out of the hose and drain it completely so it wouldn’t freeze and crack. He wished us luck and left.
I looked over the yard. It didn’t look like much. But with time, I could just imagine it becoming something special.
Craig is a flannel-clad craftsman of life. I met him and his family almost 15 years ago, when I was in college. They all looked cut from a Jan Brett book—bright-eyed, homespun, and game. Craig always had a new hobby—knitting, rock climbing, riding a unicycle. He develops his own film. In the fall he gleans apples from neighborhood trees, runs them through a press he built, and brews hard cider. In the hours that remain, he’s a criminal defense attorney. He grew up playing pond hockey in Michigan and, as a rule, he gets up early.
The next morning, I was up early, too. It was 19 degrees. I sprayed a light layer of water on the snow and was just draining the hose when Craig’s Volvo pulled into our driveway and honked. It was 5:30 a.m.
“Jacob!” he called out, without moderating the volume of his voice. He walked over and inspected the thin ice. “Oh, we can put more water on this,” he said. He set down his coffee and sprayed it some more. He started shoveling snow into the low points. He was a whirl of activity.
At this temperature, Craig said I could spray a layer every hour. I was already getting the hang of the routine, but I was curious about what lay ahead.
“How many layers do you end up putting down before it’s a rink?” I ventured.
“Oh, about 100 or so,” he said.
For most of my life I’ve endured winter. Now I was desperate for it.
So, over the next week and a half, that’s what I did. When the days were too warm, I’d go out at 2 a.m. to put down another layer. I started waking up at 4:30 a.m. I was sick with a sinus infection and not getting healthier, but I was committed now, attending to our ice like it was a newborn. Nights were wakeful. When I slept, I had nightmares about the whole thing melting. I learned its strengths and weaknesses. I fretted over it. I was invested now, because I had something to lose.
In the mornings I’d walk out, kneel down, and stroke it with my palm. It could be coarse, fragile, grainy, or slick. It had moods. I pressed my thumb against the end of the hose and showered water down on the ice. In places the ice was thin and brittle like glass, and the water hit these patches like a snare drum. In other spots the ice cracked, sputtered, and hissed. I’d stand there holding the hose in the dark, the whole world asleep, and watch Orion stride across the sky. When I’d come into the house, my frozen hand would stick to the door handle.
For most of my life I’ve endured winter. Now I was desperate for it. I started obsessing over the forecast, and I dreaded any day over 35 degrees. I winced whenever the low sun crept over our neighbor’s roof and hit the rink. I vigilantly cleared off the dark maple seeds that absorb heat and burn holes through the ice. I patched the thin parts and added layer after layer of ice, as often as the weather allowed. Within a week it was lumpy and cratered. But when the boys walked on it, they fell on their faces. I found that promising.
Finally, on day ten, by the miracle of physics, the ice found its level. It was three inches thick, with a tidy berm of mounded snow around the edge. We strung globe lights above it. We made ice lanterns by freezing water overnight in a five-gallon bucket then flipping it over in the morning, pouring out the water in the middle that doesn't freeze and putting a candle inside—another trick we learned from Craig. Hilly found some used hockey gear online, and we started skating around our yard, as relentlessly and unselfconsciously as children. Julian waddled around like a penguin in his snowsuit, catching snowflakes on his tongue. Theo teetered on his skates, wielding a plastic shovel and delaying the game by burying our puck in the snow.
Hilly started telling friends that the rink had changed her life. It wasn’t hyperbole. Any other winter weekday evening, we’d be cooped up inside, slavering for spring. But now, on the darkest days of the year, we are outside, breathing hard, moving. We don’t even have to drive anywhere.
I’m lucky to be married to Hilly because, frankly, she’s more fun than I am. It hasn’t been easy to come to terms with, but the examples abound. Just the other day before breakfast, she laced up her skates and walked out to the rink with a cup of coffee.
It was a frigid morning, and I stayed inside with the kids. We watched her through Theo’s bedroom window, our faces pressed against the glass at three different heights, our chests filled with three different measures of pride. She skated lap after lap, turning tight figure eights, flexing and twisting and gliding across the ice, absolutely absorbed. Then she came inside cheeks red and eyes a-glitter, like a Mary Oliver poem.
“The elk are up on the mountain,” she said. “Did you see them? And eagles! There were five bald eagles circling above me!”
I knew then what I should have known all along: that in life and marriage, sometimes you’re the dreamer and sometimes you’re the accountant. There’s honor in both. But whatever your role, with a good partner any project is worth it. It will always, always be worth it.