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Kiss my ass: Building a backyard skating rink
Not as easy as you might think
Kiss my ass

Sure, it seems like the simplest thing in the world. Lay down a liner, fill it up with water and wait for a cold night. Can’t be anything easier than turning water into ice in sub-zero weather. So easy in fact that everybody and their dog will be offering all kinds of helpful advice.  

It seems everyone is an expert on this subject — “Let the hose run all night in sub-zero weather” (wishful thinking); “set a fine spray sprinkler in the middle for even application” (big crater where the sprinkler was surrounded by a field of ice pimples); “pump river water instead of using tap water because it’s already colder and closer to freezing” (insignificant compared to the 256 calories per gram of water lost during the heat of fusion, i.e. going from 32-degree liquid to 32 degrees solid); “hot water freezes faster because it creates a thermodynamic gradient … like a ball rolling downhill” (none of us backyard Einsteins really understands this one, but it might  actually be true if you can afford the hot-water bill).  

In northern Michigan, folks will turn a fire hose on a football field for a couple of nights and have an instant hockey rink. Here in the Colorado Rockies, although the altitude helps provide the necessary chill, the thin atmosphere and typically clear skies produce intense solar radiation. Lots of shade is critical. It helps to have a large mountain on the south side of the rink. 

Liners are problematic at best and worthless in uneven, irregular terrain.  Having tried every technique imaginable, I’ve concluded that packing the snow down firmly, and then slowly layering on water, works as well as anything.  It also allows a lot more flexibility in your design.  

The trick is getting the snow properly packed. This is best accomplished by boot packing. The perfect surface would be like the shiny, white, slick, hard-packed snow of a parking lot, only without any dirty, dark spots, which will slowly rot the ice away down to the ground, even in indirect sunlight. I’ve tried using cars to pack the snow before. Even trucks, tractors and loaders. But I could never get one clean enough to prevent droppings of road grunge onto my clean white snow. I even use smooth-bottomed footwear, often slippers, when watering my ice to eliminate the chance of shedding any sort of dirt that may be hidden in the treads of shoes with better traction. A little more dangerous on wet, irregular ice, but well worth the precaution.

One year, when I was feeling excessively lazy and wealthy, I even rented a 15-ton roller packer like the ones they lay asphalt with. First, the packer drum started caking up with snow like rolling up a ball for a snowman. I finally got it scraped clean and sprayed it down with silicone to prevent the snow from sticking. This made it so slick that the drum would spin around without moving the machine forward. I then engaged the vibrator, thinking that might help bounce it along somehow. Everyone knows how those vibrators shake the ground for many yards around the compaction site. It’s a whole lot worse on frozen ground and, even over the roaring vibration of tons of steel, I could hear the windows rattling in my solid log cabin. It’s truly amazing I didn’t blow them all out. The folks at the rental shop really shouldn’t rent those things to any yahoo who thinks he might need one.    

My skating “rink” generally follows the outline of any relatively flat terrain in my back yard within the winter shadow of the ridgeline to the south. It encompasses several large spruce trees, goes through a gate and along the fence with a trail going down around the fire pit by the river and then up a slight grade and through another gate back into the yard.  

There’s not a whole lot of very flat land in mountainous terrain, so my ice amounts to more of a terrain park than a skating rink. There are a couple of banked turns and sometimes a jump or two. We suffer quite a few more injuries than on a regular rink I suppose, but it seems a small price to pay for the added excitement.

Not generally the meticulous sort, I’m very particular about my ice. I don’t allow coffee, hot cocoa, red wine or other potentially staining drinks anywhere near it. And, while I’m always concerned about the many injuries that tend to occur on ice, I’m especially quick to deal with injuries involving blood, which due to the dark color and the high salt content, is very damaging to the ice.

I’m quick to shovel snow before anything leaves tracks that might freeze into deformities. The slightest breeze sends me scurrying around picking off any debris that could cause pock marks. I rejoice downward swings of the jet stream and suffer anxiety attacks with predicted warm fronts. 

The early-morning hosing has become my favorite time, when spraying water forms beautiful clouds of steam in the pre-dawn light. The ice maintains a lively conversation, cracking, popping and groaning with the application of water as though some divine masseuse is at work. My hose does not only cover the damage of routine wear, it makes all injuries completely disappear to look like perfectly clean, unflawed, virgin ice. I magically erase all the wear and tear of yesterday with my hose. As I move slowly across the ice to keep my water layers smooth and even, my mind speeds up and travels far beyond the limits of my rink, allowing my hose and me to float across the terrain and soothe away the pains and wounds of the whole world.

One morning, looking out over the river through the foggy steam of my hose in the rosy hue of dawn, I made eye contact with a bald eagle flying upstream and experienced a spiritual exchange just as a huge, groaning crack shot across the ice, under my feet and right up through me. It was a euphoric moment where I could feel that my entire body and soul had been readjusted and relieved of all scars and burdens of the past. I turned my eyes to the sky and raised my arms upward, dancing across the ice in my slippers. That’s when I saw the brilliant flash!

I woke up seeing stars. I think I suffered a mild concussion and possibly fractured my coccyx. As I regained consciousness, I first felt the back of my skull and inspected my fingers to make sure I wasn’t bleeding. Then I rolled over and looked to make sure I hadn’t damaged the ice with the impact of my head.


Dropping out of high school to pursue the life of a cowboy in Texas, Jim Duke eventually earned a BS in Zoology and an MS on Mountain Goat Habitat in Alaska. He enjoys remote travels to exotic locations, including Patagonia, Upper Amazon, Madagascar and mountain biking across Tibet. Largely unemployable, he works on an “as-tolerated” basis, mostly dealing with equines and compost. “Kiss My Ass” appears monthly in the RFWJ.