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February 19. 2014 9:23PM

Mark Hayward's City Matters: They fight to free pond for Manchester skaters


 

Dick Manseau pilots a small city tractor as he clears the ice at Dorrs Pond, where Manchester hopes to restore a tradition of winterlong outdoor pond skating. (MARK HAYWARD/UNION LEADER)

It's simple grade school science. To make ice, you need water, freezing temperatures and lots of manpower.

Manpower, that is, if the ice is to lure teenagers into a pick-up game of hockey or nurture the ambitions of a future Charlie White or Meryl Davis.

That kind of ice is at Dorrs Pond, or at least that's the hope of new city Parks Chief Don Pinard, who has drawn all sorts of attention since pledging to return winter-long skating to Livingston Park.

Thanks to the recent cold temperatures, the freezing is the easy part. Ice measured 15 inches in depth during checks this past weekend, said Greg Paris, one of the two city rec workers assigned to keeping the ice skate-able at Dorrs.

The harder part is keeping the ice on ice.

Just as we city dwellers must shovel our driveways and the Highway Department must plow streets, Paris and Dick Manseau must clear the ice. Not just clear the ice, but smooth it out to what skaters expect at JFK Coliseum, or the West Side Arena, or even the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi.

The job involves blowing, then brushing, then misting the ice with water — multiple times. Much of the work is done on a small Kubota tractor borrowed from cemetery operations.

On Wednesday morning, the two expected it would take all day to blow snow off two areas — each about 100 feet long and a little less wide — for skating. But any change in weather, they warned, can put their effort back to ground zero, or in this case, ice zero.

"You can't control winter weather, and we don't know what to expect with the (approaching) rain and warm spell. We won't know what we're doing until Friday," he said.

For example, this week's rains could frost the frozen pond with a top coat of ice slick enough to launch a triple axel. Or the rain could be blown by wind, freeze in layers and end up freezing into a crust of dissatisfaction, just in time for upcoming school vacation week.

"It could go so many different ways. It could help, it could damage," Paris said.

For years, skating at Dorrs Pond was not a high priority. Sure it was nice, but the weather had to cooperate, and after a pickup truck went through the ice in 2002, the notion of smooth ice lost its sparkle.

But Pinard has said he wants to emphasize the recreation part of Parks and Recreation.

"I'd just like to see more affordable, fun recreation for the citizens, a quality of life issue," he said.

He has picked a good winter, a winter of polar vortices, NBA-sized snowbanks and the drama of winter Olympics.

Manchester resident John Larochelle brought his daughters to Dorrs on Monday. He did it partly so his girls could get out of the house, partly so he could see Dorrs.

"Pond skating is more of a free-for-all. A rink, you go around in a circle," Larochelle said.

But the ice was lousy. Crews had not cleared the snow from Saturday night, but some skaters had shoveled and snow-blowed their own separate skating areas, each about 30 by 30 feet. Little room to really move, and lots of bumps and obstructions in the ice.

Pinard said the ice was fine during the day, but his crew didn't work on Sunday or the Monday holiday. Then 8 inches of snow fell Tuesday. Paris and Manseau didn't get to the ice until Wednesday.

In Keene, where Robinhood Park offers the skating that Pinard wants at Dorrs, crews are on the ice seven days a week, said Keene Parks Director Andrew Bonhannon. "If we don't get on the ice and keep it clean, we could lose it," he said.

Bonhannon speaks with decades of experience. In Manchester, the Dorrs crew is on a snow-covered learning curve. For example, Paris has learned to avoid snow mounds. They create their own heat, which melts snow at their base and creates mounded ice.

And he talks about a new approach for next year: basically plowing shore to shore and blowing snow into the woods.

But for now, he is content to keep any snow and rain from ruining his ice.

"This is the best," said Paris, who skated with Manchester Regional Youth Hockey for 12 years. "I couldn't ask for anything better to do in the wintertime than making ice."

Mark Hayward's City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com


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