For many long adult years, winter was for me something to endure, a time of occasional beauty but mostly gloom, slush, slippery driving and shoveling. Ice was a dreaded matter, something to sprinkle salt on, unless the frozen matter was in a glass. Then we moved from the cramped ravines of coastal Connecticut to the mountains of central Montana. Winters there are assuredly longer and stronger, colder and bolder but also filled with a bracing beauty that at times overwhelms. And sunshine. In the capital of Helena the sun shines way more than 300 days a year. It might be 10 below zero, but most days will be sunglass sunny.
There, our little boy took up ice hockey. One day as a dutiful dad with Canadian parentage, I commissioned a landscaper to fill and meticulously level a sizeable chunk of backyard. We packed it, surrounded it with railroad ties and hay bales, and one Thanksgiving Day some years ago with the temperature drooping to 28 and below, I turned on our lawn sprinkler. In hours the spot was coated with ice, which we crunched underfoot every late November thereafter. We watered and watered. In two days, just like many generations of other northern North American parents, we began to flood and flood, watery layer after watery layer atop each other to freeze as hard as, well, ice.
Soon, we had created a patch of frozen water sufficient for skating. And there until late March for countless afternoons, brisk mornings and evenings, beneath bright lights, our son and his grade school pals skated and skated and skated. They hooped and hollered. They raced and fell and laughed. They shot pucks, blocked pucks and narrated for an oblivious world their own overtime championship heroics that are long forgotten and will never be surpassed.
It was grand watching his skills develop, his confidence in physical activity, his imagination and moves as those shiny skates became an extension of his body. All for little cost and in the safety of our own closely watched yard. “Are you ready to come in now?” his mother would call as the evening thermometer fell.
“No!” came the reply, muffled by the muffler. For hours he wheeled and dealed. And we watched. Finally, he had to come in and begin the long, laborious process of undressing his bundled self, pulling off sopping gloves, unlacing dripping skates, then unzipping, unbuttoning and lifting off layer after layer of scarves, coats, sweaters, shirts and socks. The hair was sweaty and matted. His weary smile was delightful to behold. The hot chocolate was tasty and hot. The excited, disjointed descriptions of on-ice exploits, already well-witnessed by parental eyes, were totally out of sequence but minutely memorized. Grand times each and every one.
A simple joy
But I must be honest. A second selfish joy was more private. It came from the simple act of making, re-making and re-re-making the ice, time after time, night after night, winter after winter, all alone out there in nose-numbing air beneath so many stars and a few bright lights, looking like a certifiable nutcase watering the backyard in orange parka and minus-degree weather. It’s silly, I know, relishing the labor of making something as transparently transient as ice, something that any Frigidaire can do anytime with water. But even if I didn’t live now where people blow into their cupped hands and stamp their feet at 50 degrees, I would forever remember and savor those many hours alone working my little patch of ice.
I’ve often admired the work of carpenters and masons, thinking they must feel added satisfaction in their work. At the end of each day’s labors they have something real and substantive right before their eyes to admire and, literally, build on. Not always so in my career world of public communications and writing. So perhaps it was the satisfaction of an unskilled craftsman I felt looking out the picture window one last time before going to bed to admire a night’s work, “my ice.” No, make that “My Ice.”
The ice-making process began every time — sometimes several times a night — by lugging 75 feet of rubber hose from the warm basement through the snow to the rink. One end was snapped into a nearby faucet. The other flowed open and free. With it, I’d scurry to the far corner before water started spewing. Holding the hose 6 or 8 feet from the end, I’d whip it gently back and forth on the ice to spill house-warm water onto the scratched surface.
My breath clouded before my eyes. The only sound was the soft whooshing of water and, then, the brief crackling as it merged with existing ice. Slowly, still sweeping the hose back and forth, I’d make my way backward across the ice, watching the new water spill and fill every single crack and scratch, like a Disney cartoon brush sweeping its smoothing colors onto a transluscent canvas. I’d finally reach the corner, where I could step off into the snow to flood the last little section.
Sometimes I’d shoot the water high into the country-cold air where steam drifted off it, briefly clouding the countless stars that hang over the rural Rockies. Occasionally, a star fell and I made a wish. In the valley far below I could spot the stoplights switch to late-night flashers to police empty streets. Sometimes it would snow lightly, which was gorgeous to watch, those little things drifting down through the backyard light. But it was also annoying because each flake melted into an icy pimple on my freezing water. This would require yet another watering an hour or so later. Oh, too bad! Sitting indoors by the gas fireplace, I’d have missed all that.
From rinkside, looking back toward the house like a farmer surveying his manicured field of maturing corn, I could watch over several silent minutes as the new water congealed and slowly but surely transformed magically into ice. It was amazing every time. Frequently, I’d return an hour later to redo the nearly smooth surface again and again, not because it needed it but because I wanted it. And in the morning on my way to work I’d slip down the hill to walk a bit on the rink and feel, even through my dress shoes, the new smoothness recently created.
Some mornings after a light predawn snowfall I’d discover the tracks of all kinds of critters—deer, dogs, coons, who knows what. While I slept nearby, they’d wandered onto the ice and, perhaps, they too had played. The footprints sure indicated more than ambling. Returning from work at night I would accost my son, “You didn’t scratch up My Ice today, did you?” And he’d usually admit that, well, yes, in point of fact he had scratched it up real good. Which would prompt some serious tickling as punishment.
But even if he hadn’t, I knew it required another coat of water. Just to keep it fresh, you understand. Over those winter weeks in those years I watered that rink way more than necessary for juvenile ice skating. I’d “make ice” at the slightest whim. I told myself I was building a reserve in case of a hot spell. In Montana. In January.
Any warm days of say 35 or 40 degrees would turn the ice surface sufficiently slushy to melt away any bumps or imperfections, which the early dusk would freeze into glasslike smoothness. Still, a little touch-up was obviously needed.
By late March most winters, when the ice would begin to decay beneath each day’s more enduring sun, we had upwards of 9 inches of the shiny stuff, several hundred thousand pounds of ice sitting there in the yard to skate over, to play on — and to look at.
And, now, three years and 1,200 miles away, to forever remember making.
Andrew H. Malcolm is a prize-winning veteran newsman for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, where he is now a member of the editorial board. He’s the author of 10 books, including FURY, the biography of the smallest player in the National Hockey League. He is the father of four and a lousy ice skater.