Getting to Base Ice

Al Arsenault shovelling show at Centrepointe Park rink.

I’ve discovered that looking after outdoor skating rinks is not just a pastime – it’s an art form. And I’ve just met a master. 

Al Arsenault has been flooding and looking after his neighbourhood outdoor rink at Lakeview Park in Ottawa’s west end for 31 years. But we first meet at the nearby Centrepoint Park where he’s been called in to try to tackle some problems brought on by unseasonably mild weather this winter. Today his  experience and skill are needed to fix a rink volunteer’s worst nightmare. It’s so mild that all the water that was supposed to flood and freeze inside the rink has run off under the boards into a nearby parking lot. Grass pokes up through holes in the ice.

“This weather is terrible,” says Al as he shovels snow. “Usually we get the rinks up and running between Christmas and New Year.” But it’s the first week of January and many of the city’s 270 outdoor rinks are still closed. “This year is very unusual. You need cold and snow, but if I had a choice, I’d pick the cold.” 

So Al and other volunteers are deep into rink triage. They are hauling snow on sleds from the nearby park and shovelling it into the troublesome corners of the rink. Then they carefully wet the snow to create an ice barrier to stop leaking. It’s my first lesson in the art of the outdoor rink – a fine balance of cold and snow. 

Just to get started you need 10 centimetres of snow and three days and nights of clear cold of anywhere from -10 to -20 Celsius. Then the hard work starts. That snow has to be packed and then carefully saturated with water and allowed to freeze at least 8 to 10 times to create a solid foundation. The Base Ice is crucial for all outdoor rinks. It can take up 70 hours of work before the first skater glides onto the ice. All across the city rink volunteers are out almost every night to protect the ice and all that hard work.

Later that week I head to Al’s neighbourhood rink at Lakeview Park to take photos for my project The Outdoor Rink. It seems he was destined to take care of this rink tucked away among the trees when he bought his house in 1989. 

“The house we bought backed onto Lakeview Park and it turns out the operator for that particular rink…was the owner of the house I bought. So not only did I buy his house I inherited his rink.”

That inheritance has been well cared for. The ice is like porcelain. Hard and smooth and translucent. It’s the Sistine Chapel of rinks – and I’m only half kidding. Al and a student volunteer start their routine. Scraping the ice, sweeping and shovelling the snow off the edges and spraying a fine layer of water. Again it’s a fine art. Too much water creates weak ice, oddly enough. A fine water layer creates the strongest ice, says Al, who believes the attention to detail is crucial when cleaning and flooding make it smoother and safer for hockey players and skaters.

“It’s the difference between nice ice and excellent ice.” Now, all we need is more snow and some serious winter cold.

  • A man in a yellow coat sprays water in the corner of a rink.
  • A man with a bright orange hat drags a sled of of snow across a skating rink.

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