“We got him his first skates the day after Christmas, and he really loved it,” Scott Wendell told me as 5-year-old Jack skated circles on Lake Como. “So we’ve been out here almost every night after school.”
“I like skiing!” Jack insisted, despite the smile on his face.
“He loves it,” corrected his father.
Jack must love it, because he’s gotten good at ice skating over the last month. He’s certainly better than I am.
Shaped something like a crab
The small Lake Como ice rink is about 30 feet across, and shaped something like a crab, with the snow scraped away from the ice at odd angles. If one checked on the rink every few days, a keen observer would notice that it is constantly changing shape. The odd angles are the result of many hands constantly grooming the ice patch, keeping it clear of snow and as flat as the weather allows.
“Somebody started clearing this off,” Wendell explained. “It wasn’t very usable, but then Tim came out and put in some work. And Ted’s got a rink in his backyard over there.”
Wendell pointed to a house across the street.
“He comes out about right where you’re standing and floods it almost every night,” Wendell said.
Neighbors coming together
The small Como rink is just one example of a common sight around the Twin Cities this year, people coming together to improve our public spaces. Here in the Como neighborhood, it’s a handful of neighbors who are doing some of the digging, keeping ice free for anyone who wants it.
But even they don’t know all the names of the people doing the rink maintenance.
“I don’t think anybody knows how many people maintain it overall,” explained Tim Silverthorn. “We pass like ghosts. I have yet to work on it at the same time as anyone else. Some evenings I come down to work and find everything already in order, so I just skate.”
In a classic “dad move,” Silverthorn began working on the DIY rink as a form of self-therapy, using the rink as a gentle nudge for his kids.
“I took this on because I wanted to get my two teenagers out of the house to skate,” Silverthorn tells me. “We usually skate at Chelsea Heights Elementary, but this year, for whatever reason, there’s no rink.”
Cities everywhere have been forced by the pandemic to cut budgets, and falling revenues hit Minneapolis and St. Paul hard. With aid from the federal government still being debated in Congress, cities and counties cut back on recreation center hours, so that the usual ice rinks haven’t been available to as many people.
Enter the dads of Como Lake.
“A dad living nearby made a circular rink — this rink, about 30 feet in diameter to start,” explained Silverthorn, who is a standup comedian when he’s not clearing ice. “Working at night, I added a hairpin side trail and pushed back the edges about 6 feet.”
‘Quite a job at the time’
The hairpin trails explain the odd angles of the rink today, which has a few loops coming off the main patch of ice.
“It was quite a job at the time,” Silverthorn said. “The snow was packed down from cross-country skiers and foot trample [and] I had to break it up with a coal shovel before clearing it. A later warm-up softened things up so it was easier to make a second trail and push the edges back several more feet.”
Back in December, Lake Como was in an ice-skating sweet spot, where the ice was thick but snow hadn’t yet fallen. Back then, all 70 acres of the lake were nearly perfect for skating. On weekends, the lake filled up with so many people that it resembled a scene from “Peanuts,” with groups of all ages skating in clusters or passing hockey pucks for hundreds of feet. Parents were teaching their kids pushing chairs, while other skaters did circles around others fishing through holes in the ice.
These days, the rink is smaller but the action remains lively as the rink slowly grows or shrinks as skate Samaritans appear in the night to do their work.
“I was huffing at it late one night two or three weeks ago when my neighbor walked up with his dog and offered to hit it with his so-called trash can Zamboni,” Silverthorn told me. “He hand pumps hundreds of gallons out of the lake. I think he has groomed the rink 3 or 4 times since. Recently the ice has been glass. It’s wonderful seeing so many people out there.”
Silverthorn has lived in the Como neighborhood for more than 30 years. As he tells the story, having a steady ice rink on the lake is something rare. Once in a while, people might clear a patch of ice for a week or two. But most years, the lake stays covered in snow, and skating is reserved for the many indoor arenas or smaller parks around town.
From landscape to lifeline
Not this year. Thanks to the relentless pandemic, getting out of the house is a necessary balm for just about everyone. COVID has turned the lake from a landscape into a lifeline.
During the pandemic that has kept everyone separated for almost an entire year, small acts of kindness take on a larger meaning. On the other side of the lake, just past Nagasaki Street, a man named Ronald Okenfuss has been dutifully grooming a looping ski trail on an odd triangle of parkland. And here, almost every night, a neighbor crosses the street and floods the rink with his trash can and pump. The next day, when strangers wandering up from Ivy Avenue, they’ll have somewhere to skate around for a while
“I most commonly come late at night, when I’m restless, not uncommonly well after midnight,” Silverthorn explained.
Late at night, with snow muffling the sounds of the city, when it’s too easy to feel alone, the small rink keeps people connected.
“It’s such a feeling,” Silverthorn said. “Whether it’s Saturday afternoon with parents teaching their doddering little ones to skate alongside swirling clutches of adult friends on meet-ups, or at the witching hour, with nothing for company but the lake, open sky, bracing wind and my quarter-century-old Bauers scratching arcs in the ice, pavilion lights beaming on watchfully.”