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It’s Wonderful How Ice Can Be So Warm

It’s Wonderful How Ice Can Be So Warm

Dan McCue

“It is a pleasure to the real lover of nature to give winter all the glory he can.” – Dorothy Wordsworth[1]

Each year, I know that, eventually, winter will come to Grinnell, Iowa, the place I call home. On this patch of the American prairie, some enjoy the solitude of ice fishing on a pond or lake, while others favor the roar of a snowmobile across a sea of freshly fallen snow. Kids build forts and pelt each other with snowballs. But as for me and my family, since 2010 we have discovered the joy of skating by building an ice skating rink.

Yes, a rink. So if you’re struggling to picture why we go to the trouble of building a rink for 2-3 months of winter play, just picture us working hard on a very shallow outdoor swimming pool.

You can find rink builders like us across Iowa, the Midwest, North America, and the world. Some of the better-known rink builders include John Buccigross, ESPN personality; the late Walter Gretzky, father of ice hockey icon Wayne Gretzky; and the late Jack Falla, author and writer for Sports Illustrated.

“Anyone can love summer, but to love winter you have to carry your sunshine with you,[2]” says Falla’s wife, Barbara, in Home Ice, Falla’s collection of essays about backyard rinks.

Like the Fallas, we find our sunshine on the ice. It’s wonderful how ice can be so warm.

A History of Skating

Here in Iowa, most don’t want to give winter any glory at all. For many of my friends and neighbors, winter is something to be endured, not loved. They can only see the roads covered in snow, shoes crusted in road brine, and a closet full of coats, hats, and mittens.

But, we’re part of a long lineage of people finding joy on the ice. It’s one reason why I feel compelled to defend our embrace of skating — or, as our family calls it, wearing knife shoes.

The Low Countries of The Netherlands and Belgium have a long tradition of skating.[3]Winter Landscape with Skaters and Birds Trap,” painted by Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1565, depicted people at play, a sharp contrast from prior generations whose art showed people at work.[4]

Dutch artist Hendrick Avercamp painted many winter landscapes depicting people on ice, mostly at play. Art historians claim that if you look carefully at his 1608 work “Winter Landscape with Skaters,” you can see people playing a version of golf on the ice.[5] I imagine they were playing a proto type of hockey.

One of the best-documented skates took place 180 years ago, and the setup sounds like a joke an English major might tell. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson headed down to the Concord River to go ice skating. Sophia Hawthorne, Nathaniel’s spouse, recounted the scene in a letter: Thoreau, the experienced skater, leaping and dancing wildly as he glided. Emerson, doubled-over and statue-like. And Hawthorne, the indefatigable Trojan War hero Ajax on ice, Emerson described to Sophia.[6]

One of my favorite books about the joys of skating — and winter — is Twelve Kinds of Ice, by Mary Bryan Obed. In the book, she describes the different kinds of ice that come each year, starting with The First Ice — “a skim of ice so thin that it broke when we touched it.” The Second Ice was the ice you could pick out of a pail, and “The Third Ice was the ice that would not break. We hit it with the heels of our boots. We tapped it with the handle of an old rake. But the ice stayed firm.”

That ice (and the accompanying chill of winter) brings Field Ice, then Stream Ice, then Black Ice — not the black ice you might encounter on a highway overpass, but what Obed describes as “water shocked still by the cold before the snow.”[7] You can find videos of people skating on black ice, skating out to the middle of a pond or lake, what Obed describes as “the forbidden place of frothing whitecaps in the summer.”

The Science of Ice and Skating

Natural ice was the norm up until the invention of refrigeration systems. In 1853, Alexander Twining, an American scientist, civil engineer, and astronomer, received the first U.S. Patent for a commercial refrigeration system that produced ice. In 1940, Frank Zamboni repurposed his refrigeration plant in Paramount, California for an outdoor ice rink. It was this experience of building a human-made rink that led him to build a prototype of an ice-resurfacing machine. In 1953, he got a patent for his design.[8]

The skates we use to glide on the ice also benefit from advances in technology. The first skate blades were made of bones — could you imagine strapping a couple of cow or horse shanks on your feet? Later, these skates were made of iron and steel. Today’s skate blades are still steel and the boots are a combination of plastics, fabric, and metal.

Our backyard rink is also made possible with advances in plastics and lumber. We continue to use the same half-inch chipboard wood sheets that we first used in 2010, cut into thirds, measuring eight feet long by 16 inches high. And we purchase a new six-mil plastic liner each year in part because of nicks from skates, shovels, and pucks, and because I do not trust my ability to stow and unfurl the same plastic each year without introducing new holes that will only appear when we flood the next fall.

Two adults and a child ice skate together. They are only visible from the waist down.
(Courtesy cottonbro studio)

Building Our Rink

We’ve settled into a bit of a routine. Each autumn, we prep the backyard, raking leaves and scouring every square inch of the yard for anything that might puncture the plastic — twigs, rocks, or black walnut shells. The day after Thanksgiving, we pull out the boards. We pull out brackets, built from salvaged pallet wood.

Then we wait for the forecast. We’re probably the only family in Grinnell excited to see a stretch of days with highs at freezing temperatures and lows in the teens. That’s rink flooding weather.

When the forecast is right, we roll out the tarp. The tarp is spooled onto a three-inch-diameter, five-foot-long cardboard tube, weighing 45 pounds and folded like a life-sized highway map. We unroll the tarp to its full 40-feet-by-35-feet, a little bit of excess for our D-shaped rink that must navigate a playset, garage, shed, maple tree, and other permanent obstacles. Somehow, I always manage to confuse length and width and have to rotate the tarp 90 degrees.

Finally, it’s time to flood. I bring up the hose from the basement — we have a special cold-hardy hose — and attach it to the outdoor faucet. Just add water! Because of the magic self-leveling properties of water, the first part of the flood finds the lowest point in the yard. Within a few hours, the deepest part is more than an inch deep. We then add a “rink seed,” a piece of ice from the previous year’s rink, stored in our freezer.

Flooding can take 14-18 hours. It’s an overnight affair, a mix of anticipation and high anxiety. What if there’s a leak in the rink? What if the liner tries to breach under or between the boards? What if it’s a windy night and the tarp folds over on itself? Every few hours, I measure the depth of the water. I must wait, patiently, to reach a depth of four inches in the shallow end.

With daytime highs around freezing and lows in the teens, I can expect (and wait impatiently for) skating within a week.

Seasons Change

In Walden, Thoreau described black ice as “interesting and perfect, being hard, dark, and transparent,” and went on to describe viewing the pond as if through a window pane to the inky depths below.[9] Like Walden Pond, our rink is interesting and perfect — a window into myself that centers and renews me each winter.

I trust that there will be enough cold — even if I have to wait until January for the first skate. And the only time I could enjoy skating was very early morning because I went to work early before the pandemic — 6:00 a.m. — so that I could pick up the kids after school each day.

That meant getting up before 5:00 a.m. so I could get in a short skate each morning. In this morning ritual, I felt the cold and heard the sound of the blades carving the ice. I learned how 25ºF ice is different from -5ºF ice because the ice hardens in the bitter cold.

Each of us has a relationship with the rink. When our children were babies, my spouse and I would lace up our skates, grab the battery-operated baby monitor, and skate after we put the kids to bed. Each of our kids learned to skate on the rink; they taught their friends to skate, too. Working remotely, it’s easier for me to make time for a skate during the day. But, now that our kids are older, it’s harder to find time for an all-family skate.

Eventually, the days get longer. The angle of the sun gets steeper. Maple buds start falling on the ice, burning divots into that perfect sheet of ice. Winter eventually gives way to spring.

Building a backyard rink is my way of giving winter — and my family — all the love I can. I put my hope in a season that is uncertain and fleeting.

It’s wonderful how ice can be so warm.


  1. Dorothy Wordsworth, Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth (London, Macmillan, 1897), 153.
  2. Falla, Jack. Home Ice (Tampa, Fla., McGregor Publishing, 2000), xiii.
  3. Louise Borden, The Greatest Skating Race (New York, M.K. McElderry Books, 2004).
  4. “Winter Through Bruegel’s Eyes,” Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, accessed Nov. 11, 2022, .
  5. Hendrick Avercamp, Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters, oil on panel, c. 1608, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam,
  6. “Henry Thoreau is an experienced skater, and was figuring dithyrambic dances and Bacchic leaps on the ice — very remarkable, but very ugly, methought. Next him followed Mr. Hawthorne who, wrapped in his cloak, moved like a self-impelled Greek statue, stately and grave. Mr. Emerson closed the line, evidently too weary to hold himself erect, pitching headforemost, half lying on the air. He came in to rest himself, and said to me that Hawthorne was a tiger, a bear, a lion, — in short, a satyr, and there was no tiring him out; and he might be the death of a man like himself. And then, turning upon me that kindling smile for which he is so memorable, he added, “Mr. Hawthorne is such an Ajax, who can cope with him!” Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, Memories of Hawthorne (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1923), 53.
  7. Ellen Bryan Obed, Twelve Kinds of Ice (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), 18.
  8. Eric Dregni, Zamboni: The Coolest Machines on Ice (Minnesota, Voyageur Press, 2006), 14-20.
  9. Henry David Thoreau, Walden (New York, Crowell, 1910), 327.

Featured image: Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters, Hendrick Avercamp, c. 1608. (Courtesy Rijksmuseum)

Dan, his spouse, and their three kids live in Grinnell, Iowa. Each winter, they build a backyard skating rink. Ironically, his refrigerator does not have an ice maker.

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