February 2018


Skating Ponds

Sean Mullen’s pond lies in a hollow at the end of a narrow gravel road in Orange County, Vermont. In winter, the road weaves between snowbanks past a couple of houses and a hunting camp before the ¼-acre sheet of black ice swings into view. Over the past half-dozen winters, the Mullen pond has become a magnet for neighborhood skaters. On most Sundays at about 2 in the afternoon, the air echoes with the clatter of shovels on the rink. A skater slides the goals into place. Then the players toss their hockey sticks into a pile on the ice, and Mullen divides the sticks into two clumps to choose the teams. Another game of Sunday shinny gets under way.

“It started when we had a couple of years with- out snow,” Mullen recalls. “A lot of people around here got frustrated because they couldn’t ski. I made some calls, organized a game, and all kinds of people showed up. I was surprised at how many did. There wasn’t a lot of snow that year, so it was easy to keep the pond clear. The games became something of a tradition after that.” 

Winters without snow haven’t become as much of a tradition, so Mullen had to get into the ice-clearing business. He receives a good deal of assistance from other skaters, including a friend with a plow, who helps clear snow after the ice thickens enough to hold a truck. But most of the work is up to Mullen and his wife, Julie.


A snowfall of a half foot or so means three to four hours of clearing for Mullen, using his tracked 5-horsepower, 22-inch snow blower. The blower leaves a residue of snow, so a couple of homemade, handheld pushers with 3-foot blades come in handy to polish off the surface. The Mullens also use steel chippers to shave ice bumps and plane off rough crust. When cracks or frozen slush mar the surface, the Mullens flood the pond and resurface the ice with a portable pump. As the season progresses, the snowbanks around the pond harden and help keep the hockey puck in play.

Skating ponds like the Mullens’ have always been popular in the north country, but there’s been a steady increase in the number of neighborhood rinks since snow blowers and lawn tractors have made it possible to improvise a Zamboni in your own backyard. Still, it’s a slippery and sometimes scary path to the mastery of rinkmanship, as anyone who’s ever heard the thunder of cracking ice underfoot knows. With luck, someone knowledgeable in rink maintenance lives nearby, happy to pass along his expertise. But many pond owners learn the techniques of ice clearing and resurfacing during long, cold hours of on-the-job training.

It snows. You begin to clear the rink. But where do you put the snow? it’s tempting to keep the cleared area small—perhaps just enough space for some figure skating; if a larger rink for hockey will be needed later, maybe let the more ambitious clearing wait. But it doesn’t work that way. Snow piled on the ice bonds to the surface, settles, and hardens. After a few days, it is difficult—if not impossible—to remove. Meanwhile, perhaps more snow has fallen. The snowbank around the rink perimeter grows. It snows again. If you’re shoveling by hand or using a tractor with a plow blade, open ice shrinks as the new snow piles up against the banks. A snow blower can maintain a cleared space only as long as the banks remain low enough to permit the snow to be blown over the top. In a winter with a lot of snow, the skating surface can disappear.

The cardinal rule in maintaining a skating rink is to begin by clearing as large a space as you can manage. If it’s feasible to remove the snow from the ice completely, all the better. Not only will a heavy snow load bend the ice and cause cracking, but also ice under a thick layer of snow is insulated and tends to warm up, melt, and seep on the rink. If the snow can’t be moved off-ice, a good rule of thumb is to push the rink perimeter back 20 feet beyond the area you want to keep clear. That provides plenty of space for subsequent snow removal.

In determining the rink size, it’s important not to make too much work for yourself. If you’re clearing by hand and can count on fellow skaters for help, you might be able to maintain a rink large enough for a hockey game. A full-sized rink is 85 feet by 200 feet, but a 60- by 150-foot rink provides enough space for play. Figure-skating rinks can be smaller. My own pond is about 45 by 90 feet. That’s too small for hockey, but it’s ample for general skating.

The problem is that clearing a rink of any size gets old pretty fast, especially when a fresh snowstorm blows in on the heels of a big clearing job. That’s when the snow blowers, tractors, and plowing trucks come in—and sometimes go through.

Before beginning any kind of mechanical clearing, it’s essential to know if the ice is strong enough to support the load. In general, 2 inches of ice is considered safe for one person, 4 inches for a group of up to a dozen people, 6 inches for a snowmobile or snow- blower, and 10 to 12 inches for a truck with a plow. But the strength of the ice depends on quality as well as thickness. New, clear ice may not cover a body of water uniformly, especially over springs and near inlets and outlets. Thicker midwinter ice tends to be more uniform, and 12 inches will support large groups of people and plowing equipment. Yet in spring, warm winds and sun can weaken ice that is more than a foot thick, making it extremely hazardous. Ice will also be weakened by prolonged weight in one spot, as well as by “resonance waves” produced by a moving vehicle. In other words, ice is complicated stuff, and thickness should not be considered the only criterion for safety.

In case of a breakthrough, one of the best rescue devices is a light ladder with a strong line attached to one end. The ladder can be shoved out to the person in the water, then hauled in. The ladder helps distribute weight over a large area. A ring buoy on a rope or even an inflated inner tube can also be used. For self-rescue, ice boaters and others who may be alone on the ice often carry a pair of awls to help pull themselves out. At the very least, a skater ought to carry a knife for the same purpose. Anyone driving a plow truck on ice should make sure the door opens easily and should keep a window open.

Read More Pondologies

Topics vary from month to month and provide great information when researching where you want to build a pond, or how to keep it clean.  Other areas of interest are pond use for more than swimming, and how to keep fish happy in your pond.