The ice is nice and the skating is great

Bill Fraser-Harris adds some water to the rink. Photo by Chea Waters Evans

It’s in the single digits on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and it’s pretty quiet around Charlotte. The occasional car or brave cross-country skier is around, but for the most part it’s a day for the indoors—unless you’re at the Charlotte public ice-skating rink. Not many people get excited about days of freezing temperatures, but Bill Fraser-Harris isn’t one of those people. He was there Monday afternoon, along with a dozen other people, wearing spikes on his shoes and flooding a section of the ice.

The rink, located just west of Charlotte Central School, has been around for a couple decades and change; it’s operated by the Recreation Commission and paid for through its budget. Fraser-Harris shares ice-maintenance duties with Ed Sulva, taking the day shift while Sulva usually has nighttime duties. When the weather cooperates, the two of them, with another member of the Recreation Committee who is still learning the finer points of ice maintenance, spend about six to 10 hours each at the rink.

“Ed is really interested in ice,” Fraser-Harris said, “and I do this and the social media. We combine our intellects, because this is all guesswork.” Despite their years of experience and the bank of knowledge that’s formed through trial and error, Fraser-Harris concedes that there’s another person who really holds the cards in this situation.

“Mother Nature controls everything—we just kind of do what we can do,” he said.

Just over a week ago, temperatures were in the 50s, and the rink was water and mush. Getting and keeping good ice requires multiple days and nights of freezing temperatures; Fraser-Harris said that in the seven or eight years he’s been working on the ice rink, he has definitely noticed that those stretches are getting less frequent.

The water hookup on the east side of the rink draws water from a reservoir on the other side of Hinesburg Road. Fraser-Harris said that the fire department used to help flood the ice, but that over time the ice-maintenance crew realized that the skating surface has better quality if water is applied in thin layers and allowed to freeze in increments rather than all at once.

“Water freezes from the top,” Fraser-Harris said over the sound of the gushing rubber hose that he uses to systematically flood the ice. He pointed to a pothole in the ice, the top layer of which is shattered. “When the water underneath doesn’t freeze, it sinks into the ground.”

On MLK Jr. Day, the south end of the rink had two goals on either side and a raucous pickup game of hockey going; on the north end, some elementary school kids and their parents puttered around less aggressively but just as happily. There is plenty of room for both to happen at once. Along with plenty of space, the rink has a warming hut and lights for night skating.

Fraser-Harris drove his blue tractor over to the rink to clear the snow on Monday. He said he usually doesn’t have to do that because Dave Schermerhorn, who has a farm across the street, is the regular plow guy. The tractor can go right onto the ice and clears it much more quickly than a guy with a shovel could. “We can’t flood with snow on the ice,” Fraser-Harris said, “because then it just forms slush.”

When the rink is covered in snow, Fraser-Harris said, skaters think they’re helping by shoveling it off, but ideally, they would just skate over the snowfall, he said. Though they may clear off a section that’s nice for skating, the snow inevitably ends up in piles on the rest of the rink, and then solidifies and makes bumps. He said it’s better for the ice in general to trust that someone will be there shortly with a tractor, though he acknowledges that people don’t always follow the rules.

There aren’t set hours for the rink; but on cold nights, skaters could be asked to go for the good of the ice. Thin layers of water, applied over time, freeze on top of each other to make a smooth, skate-able surface. Sulva and Fraser-Harris put cones on the entrance with a sign when the ice is still freezing, though sometimes the rink is just too tempting for skaters to wait, though Fraser-Harris said he wishes they would.

The benefits of the rink far outweigh whatever nuisance may come from rule-breakers and wildly uncooperative and unpredictable weather. “It’s really wonderful to have a place for teenagers to go to that’s safe, that’s exercise, that has fresh air,” Fraser-Harris said.

The ice rink is one of the most popular Recreation Commission endeavors, and the Charlotte Vermont Public Ice Rink Facebook page, with over 600 followers, is the best and most up-to-date source of information about conditions and upkeep.