There’s nothing like the freedom and fun of pond skating. Generations of New Jerseyans have grabbed their skates and headed out to the local pond in the winter. In recent years, though, temperatures have rarely been consistently cold enough to freeze ponds sufficiently for safe skating.
One exception is towns that flood fields or meadows. These makeshift outdoor ice rinks freeze more quickly than ponds because the water is still and shallow.
In Essex Fells, the fire department floods a meadow when temperatures drop, creating a scene out of a Norman Rockwell painting. There’s a big area for general skating, a smaller one for hockey, a bonfire, a warming hut, and lights for night skating.
“It’s really sublime,” says Richard Satran, who grew up playing hockey on northern Wisconsin ponds and has been lacing up his skates at the Essex Fells rink since his now adult sons were small. “You catch up with other townies and maybe get into a pickup hockey game. Outdoor skating is amazing; you generate so much heat that you only need a sweater.”
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In Madison, the Department of Public Works (DPW) floods a soccer field, which becomes the Rosedale Skating Pond. “It’s a clever use of the field; just when the soccer season is over, the field becomes a rink,” says Michael Pellessier, communications director for the borough of Madison.
For decades, Harding has been flooding a section of Bayne Park to create an ice rink, says DPW superintendent Tracy Toribio. A slight depression in the field was created long ago for the purpose. Once the ground is frozen, it acts as the liner that holds the water, Toribio says. Water is added, a fraction of an inch at a time, until it’s at least 3 inches thick. Once the rink opens, it’s sprayed with water dozens of times a day to keep it smooth.
To Toribino, it’s a labor of love. “We have a hundred people there some nights,” he says. “Seeing people skating and smiling is what makes me happy.”
With warming temperatures, though, even these outdoor town rinks are in danger of extinction. Their seasons have been starting later and ending earlier. “Last year was the shortest season we’ve ever had,” says Pellessier. It was the same in Harding, with only five days of skating, December 25-30. “After that it got warm, and that was it,” says Toribio. By contrast, in 2010-2011, the rink was open for 37 days.
Some outdoor skating devotees go the DIY route. Fifteen years ago, Dave Levy of Montclair made a backyard rink out of lumber, PVC pipe and a liner from Home Depot, with the help of YouTube videos. Levy labeled the 2x4s for easy reassembly each year. The rink, which sits atop his patio, has been a boon to his hockey-playing sons, not just to practice their skills, but as a learning experience. One son even devised a Zamboni-like device for smoothing the ice.
But even backyard rinks are on borrowed time. “You need two to three days of well below freezing to get a nice, solid block of ice,” Levy says. “That way, even if it gets above freezing during the day, it will stay frozen. But the amount of freezing days is much less, and the temperature goes up and down. When that happens, you end up with the world’s largest bird bath in the middle of your backyard.”
To find out if town rinks are open, call the town, check the town website, or better yet, drive by to see for yourself.