Icing on the lake: Meet the volunteers behind Calgary’s Adopt-a-Rink program

From long-timers to first-timers, dozens work to turn Calgary parks to rinks every year

Calgary's Adopt-a-Rink program helps people with zero ice-making experience build an outdoor ink in their community. Here, Ron Brigley works to get the base of the rink in place. COURTESY ANDREW WHITE

Eighteen years ago, Jim Besse’s neighbour asked him if he’d want to start making the community rink in Calgary’s Sunnyside.

“My kids were young so I said sure,” said Besse.

His kids are now off at university, but on any given winter night you’re still likely to find Besse out at New Edinburgh Park, flooding that community’s rink.

It’s one of 46 outdoor rinks operated by volunteers under the city’s Adopt-a-Rink Program.

The city also has seven outdoor rinks it maintains with parks staff, and countless others run by community associations.

Besse said his rink is basically a one-man operation. He spends about an hour each evening flooding.

“I used to have to go to the fire hydrant, but then the city parks department – to their credit – 10 years ago they were doing an upgrade to the irrigation system, so they put in access for me,” said Besse .

“Now it’s close. It’s one length of hose. I’m very thankful to the city parks for helping me out.”

Besse said his park is about 60 per cent as big as an arena rink. He doesn’t bother with boards, because they hinder shovelling and encourage slapshots.

Aside from flooding, Besse also takes on a lot of the shovelling duties. He said a big snowfall can take four to six hours to clear, but he sometimes gets some help with that.

“On an annual basis it’s 100, 120 hours,” he said. “I enjoy doing it – I get a lot of positive feedback so I enjoy doing it.

“Well, not the shovelling so much.”

While Besse maintains the ice in one of Calgary’s oldest communities, Andrew White has joined a team of volunteers in one of the city’s newest communities in the deep south.

He and about 15 others in Chaparral are taking a stab at making that community its very first rink.

As of the new year, Chinooks have stood in the way of anyone actually skating on the ice, but White said the work is still bringing people together.

“We try to get out every night,” he said. “We’ve really been fighting with it – just where it’ll warm up, it’ll melt, the ice dam will let go. We’ve had run off. It’s been a bit of a fight. But it’s definitely a nightly thing or every other night.”

Volunteers in Chaparral work at making the base for their community’s rink. COURTESY ANDREW WHITE

He said the city put on a class in the fall to help first-timers learn the ins and outs of laying down a good sheet of ice, and White said that was helpful, because even with a crew of 16, nobody has any real experience with making a rink.

“We’ve been working together, discussing it, and figuring it out amongst ourselves.”

When it’s ready – hopefully after the next cold snap – the rink will be about 50 feet by 90 feet. White said they have to work with the natural lay of the land to make it work.

He said they’ve come up with some homemade solutions to save themselves some labour at their nightly task.

The city gave them a long length of hose and the ability to hook into the fire hydrant, but hauling that hose around got a bit tiresome.

“We had a big wooden spool for electric cable – so we’ve got that rigged up with a drive shaft and a crank for rolling up the 300 feet of fire hose,” he said.

Their contraption sits on a trailer, which can be hauled wherever its needed.

He said they’ve also taken some steps to protect the fire hydrants.

“To set the water guys minds at ease we’ve been setting up an ice fishing tent over the hydrant with heaters, so we don’t split the hydrant.”

According to White, the city did give them gear to get started, including boards, a liner, and the hose.

They also provided a small fire pit, and that is getting lots of use.

Even though the rink isn’t ready, Chaparral’s fire pit is getting lots of use from kids at the park. COURTESY ANDREW WHITE

“It’s bringing a lot more people out to the sled hill,” said White. “We’re seeing a lot of the parents will light the fire pit, have the fire going while the kids are sledding.

“They’ll bring out cookies and hot chocolate too. It’s really getting people out and int the park a lot more.”

Back in Sunnyside, Besse said he’s cobbled together his own equipment over the years. A friend of a friend provided him with fire hose and a nozzle.

“It’s really popular in the community,” said Besse. “We have little shinny games on Mondays and Wednesdays. Weekends there’ll be 20-25 people out there at least.”

In Chaparral, White said the nightly get-togethers feel more like social gatherings than work.

“I’ve definitely built a lot of good friendships with the project,” he said.

“It’s definitely bringing the community closer together.”

Hm. Snow. No worries - 43 days until spring!

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