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Winter fun at the Schoenbeck Ice Rink. Click to enlarge pictures.
Winter fun at the Schoenbeck Ice Rink. Click to enlarge pictures.
Not skate-ready — the ice rink in early January of 2012.
Not skate-ready — the ice rink in early January of 2012.
Put away your beer — making good skating ice is not this easy.
Put away your beer — making good skating ice is not this easy.
It's lonely being a devoted South Dakota dad with an ice-skating daughter. Cold, too.
It's lonely being a devoted South Dakota dad with an ice-skating daughter. Cold, too.
Lawn sprinklers make really bad ice.
Lawn sprinklers make really bad ice.
The snow rake — an ice-making miracle wand.
The snow rake — an ice-making miracle wand.
Success! A satisfied great-nephew enjoys the Schoenbeck Ice Rink.
Success! A satisfied great-nephew enjoys the Schoenbeck Ice Rink.

We Don't Need No Zamboni

Jan 24, 2012

When your little princess looks at you with big eyes and says she wants you to flood an area for her to skate, what South Dakota dad is going to say no? It’s important to remember that heart-warming smile she gave you when you assured her you would build that ice rink. It is one of the few things that will warm your heart as you stand in the cold at midnight, wrapped like an Eskimo, spraying your yard with a garden hose.

That’s how it starts. Dad will say yes, because we all know ice grows wild in South Dakota. It grows on our sidewalk, on our driveway, in our eaves troughs and in front of every stop sign we plan to stop at. It just can’t be that hard to make a little patch of the shiny stuff to skate on. But wild ice and skating ice are two very different animals.

Wild ice can have ruts in it, and be patch-marked with dirt. Tame ice, the kind you skate on, needs to be as smooth as a baby’s bottom — and that, my friends, does not happen by accident. In fact, it takes an obsessive-compulsive disorder to make good tame ice.

I am fortunate to have a couple of buddies that have flooded their yards. They are puck heads. Unlike our neighbors in the states to the north and east, hockey really isn’t much of a winter deal here in the 5-7 zip codes, so they are unique and handy resources for creating tame ice.

Vince lives for ice, so I started there and got this wisdom: “You think you’re going to turn on a garden hose and drink a beer while your pasture floods, don’t you?” Of course, that was my plan. He sagely warned: “It doesn’t work that way.” Now into my second season of making ice, I concur. Growing tame ice in South Dakota is much harder than most would imagine. You can safely expect to spend 20 to 30 hours in single-digit temperatures, holding a garden hose, to make your promise a reality.

First, you aren’t making ice when it is nice out, and generally not when the sun is shining. The temperature has to dip below twenty degrees to really get the ice program going, and that’s going to happen at night. So after dinner, while most people are curling up by the fire, you don the Eskimo gear and unwind the garden hose. Pretty much the best ice-making time is when it gets down in the zero range, and that means you’ll be the only person in the neighborhood standing in your yard with a garden hose around midnight, stamping your feet to keep warm, and spraying water to make that perfect ice sheet.

Between last year, with its snowfall rhythm of early and often, and this year’s desert look, we have had two very different environments for this project.

If you can wait for a snow base, life is better. Trying to create ice by spraying water on bare ground doesn’t work. (I called my consultants this year to check again what I was doing wrong — turns out that even in the winter the ground is warm enough to soak up all the water you want to give it.) You need a little snow pack to build on.

The easiest way to get a base is to take your snow blower out and use its weight to pack the snow. This year that meant walking it backwards around the rink so you didn’t blow away any of the meager snow fall.

Once you have a base, the second big issue is: hot or cold — that would be the water, because there’s no question about what the outside air temperature has to be for this project to work. According to my consultants (for this I expanded the list to include a cousin that used to run the skating rink), warm is generally better. But, if you don’t want to lose your meager snow base (this year) I suggest you start with cold water — lots of it. The ice needs to layer on about 3 or 4 inches deep, and it won’t come out smooth. You’ll get pits, holes, bumps, mounds, runs and variations that you couldn’t have imagined — all of which must be removed for that OCD quality of tame ice, which is where the warm water comes in. Like the Gallo Brothers, you can’t really finish ice before its time. That time will be when you have a base, and a night that it is so cold your eyes hurt. Then, finally, with a generous supply of shaping warm water from your garden hose, you can smooth the highs and lows, and finally produce that perfect sheet of ice.

But it won’t last. The sun will become your enemy. Every morning when your family cheers the forecast of weather peaking over 35 degrees, you will mutter unkind words under your breath. You will understand the damage that sun plans to wreak upon your ice while you are away at work. Any place where a clump of grass or a speck of dirt left some darkness in your ice, the sun will focus on it like a laser — burning a hole in your perfect sheen. After work, even though your kids may not be using it until the weekend, you’ll need to go back out in the dark with your trusted garden hose and touch up your Rembrandt.

There are a few tools I have experimented with. First, the sprinkler sounds like a reasonable option for spraying the yard that you want to magically become a skating rink. I would advise against this tool. It won’t freeze up, like most people think. No, it’s worse. It will produce ice clumps that will be embedded in your otherwise perfect ice, adding hours to the time you will stand in zero temps with hot water trying to smooth them down.

Second, the snow blower is a must. After every snow, go once around with this tool to chip off the bumps and pack in the holes, so the whole surface is again ready for some warm shaping water.

Third, white paint. This is for the advanced course, and I’m not there yet, but they tell me that there is some kind of white paint you can put on your ice so that you don’t have to curse the sun each day. Next week I plan to learn how to ice paint.

Finally, the snow rake, which is a pricy miracle wand made by some company in Canada that spreads your hot water out in lines that makes your ice look like you raked it.

There are probably fancier tools and techniques, but this is one dad’s view about how to fill your  pasture or yard with winter fun. Our rink is circular, built around the fire pit like a donut, so you can skate with a bonfire. It’s also next to the guy shed which is equipped with outdoor speakers so you can skate to James Taylor’s Christmas tunes, or the entire Jimmy Buffet collection. We don’t have a Zamboni, because on this project, Dad is all the Zambalogni my little princess needs.

Lee Schoenbeck grew up in Webster, practices law in Watertown, and is a freelance writer for the 
South Dakota Magazine website.


04:15 pm - Tue, January 24 2012
I don't have a zanbalogni either so you can"t borrow mine but i do hsve a water hose with a nozzle that dispenses fine water.
09:01 pm - Tue, January 24 2012
Bernie Hunhoff said:
Thanks for the tips Lee, I've got grandkids about ready to skate. We just used frozen creeks in the "old days."

Sorry I missed you yesterday in Pierre. Saw you in the gallery watching the monkeys in the cage.
08:55 am - Wed, January 25 2012
Jana said:
Thank you for the laughs this morning when I read this. I always enjoy your postings.
07:57 am - Thu, January 26 2012
Laura said:
That is one lucky daughter you've got, Lee. We considered ourselves pretty lucky the year we were allowed to slide around on the frozen-over hog yard.
09:53 am - Tue, November 20 2012
Buck Owens said:
Thanks for the article. I love skating, but will add this to my list of things not to do.
06:12 pm - Sun, December 28 2014
Brian said:
For years back in the 80's my neighbor and I as a teen would use your standard 12" wave sprinkler and it's always done a good job producing a solid base. After many years not making ice I decided a go at it again for my step kids and rather than use the snow base I simply snow blew a large area banking the edges thick in snow and pulling out old reliable and after a mere couple hours have a solid 1/2" base of ice. Sure the inevitable grass blades pop through though when all is done I expect the same results as I had been succumb to as a teenager. So far everything is working fine and only the expense of water and the occasional few minutes of moving the sprinkler around. By morning I expect a 1 1/2" base and the mounds of snow surrounding will be solid Ice and will be ready to be flooded over the top with warm water. We have an on demand water heater so it will be done again with the sprinkler and then final fill direct with hose. It's just as I remembered and I expect decent Ice for the next three months. Everyone has their way of doing this and mine is with the least amount of effort involved in achieving a decent backyard rink the kiddos can enjoy. Here in Minnesota it's cold enough to start with hate ground. I can't say that for others though were happy to say we are headed the right direction.

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