So far in New Hampshire, it’s been a pretty good winter.
We’ve endured only one early snowstorm, but its timing worked out that kids went to school and cars stayed parked overnight on streets without getting towed. Quite a strategic snowfall.
We had a very few well-timed snowflakes on Christmas Eve.
And stretches of cold temperatures have been offset by a day or two, such as Friday and today, of mid-March weather.
All that — little snow, cold temperatures, some rain, followed by more cold temperatures — means good ice.
Good ice as in flat, slick and clear.
Ice that sparkles in the sunlight and glows under a full moon.
Ice that transforms Manchester ponds, good for little more than bass fishing in the summer, into extra city playgrounds.
Playgrounds where kids can skate into a pickup hockey game on their own schedule, and where skaters can break free from the monotony of indoor ice rinks. Smooth surfaces that amount to social Narcan for millennials overdosing on mobile devices and not-very-social media.
At least two ponds in Manchester had safe ice earlier this week. Safe ice, of course, is a relative term, but the two ponds also illustrate the differences in Manchester.
First off: Stevens Pond, the pond that drivers on Interstate 93 south glance at just about any time of the year and think “I’d rather be on Stevens Pond than this highway.”
On Thursday, a handful of independent souls were out on the ice. No one was watching over them. They had no benches to sit on to lace their skates. No hut to warm cold toes or sign to warn them of ice danger.
You only knew the ice depth if you talked to ice fisherman Jeff Goley, a Manchester firefighter and state representative who had drilled four holes through 4-inch thick ice. Even if a skater were to fall through, the pond’s only 3 feet deep close to shore, Goley said.
You didn’t need Goley to tell you the ice was safe. All you had to do was watch Dave Fuller and his two daughters. He skated and turned effortlessly, a hockey stick a third appendage as he passed a puck to his daughters, who moved more tentatively.
“I’ve been doing it for 30 years. It’s the best it’s been in years,” Fuller said.
I counted eight skaters and Gooley on the ice. “His mother is definitely having a heart attack right now,” said Travis Paquette, as he laced up the skates of his 4-year-old son, who experienced his first day on pond ice.
For moms and less adventurous types, there is Dorrs Pond at Livingston Park.
Signs read “Pond Closed” and “Danger Thin Ice.”
The ice was 7-inches thick in only one spot, said Jeff Plourde, the city parks worker who is the Dorrs ice doctor. The ice was 6 inches in the shade. Five inches on average.
Not good enough, said Plourde, referencing recommendations from the Cold Regions Research Laboratory in Hanover, which says 6 to 7 inches is needed for a small, on-foot group of people.
Dorrs Pond is obviously where the city wants people to skate.
Plourde spoke inside the warming hut, which is at pond’s edge. A wood stove was radiating a little heat, but no one was warming because no one was skating.
Were he to open the pond, Plourde said, it could draw a hundred or so skaters.
“We can’t say it’s open because once you say it’s open it’s hard to get people off the ice,” he said.
But people were skating on Stevens on thinner ice, I pointed out. What if I were to just start skating at Dorrs?
“I’m not a cop. I can’t tell you what to do,” he said.
I’ve always thought the city should facilitate public skating at Stevens Pond. What better way to market the city than for people on I-93 to see a hundred or so skaters enjoying the pond.
But the warming hut and a parking lot are at Livingston Park, and I don’t see anyone building such infrastructure at Stevens.
Of course, Stevens and Dorrs aren’t the only ponds in Manchester, but on Thursday they were about the only options.
Goldfish Pond, which is glimpsed at the southbound entrance to I-93 at Exit 9, looked to have good ice. But it is small, and ice storms have toppled trees around it, making it hard to access, said Pierre Boissenneault, who lives beside it.
Meanwhile, South Manchester is not kind to ice. Crystal Lake had open water on Thursday; Nutts Pond had a wafer thin layer of ice. I visited Pine Island Pond on Friday morning. I tapped ice just offshore with my boot and my foot took a plunge.
After Friday’s rain and today’s warm temperatures, a lot of feet will be getting wet if they were to venture onto the ice.
No worry, say skaters. Snow is bad. If it’s wet it can end up freezing to the ice and creating an uneven mess. But rain smooths out cracks and refreezes; a natural Zamboni if you will.
“It’s gonna fix the ice,” Plourde said, “but it needs to get cold after that.”