Hennepin County Medical Center - Local 977

Making the Most of Winter

Terry Byron works second shift when building ice. "I'm a night person anyways so, for me, it's kind of fun."

In an imitation winter like this one – when snowmobile and cross-country ski trails often were nonexistent, and when ice fishing remained risky for weeks – park maintenance workers like Terry Byron, Mike Nielsen and Todd Nelson went all out to make sure we at least had ice rinks to salvage the season.

“I love putting down ice, making first ice,” Byron says. It has been a major part of his job every winter since the City of Ramsey hired him seven years ago.

Layered look works for ice, too

Once the weather gets cold enough and the ground freezes, Byron, Nielsen and Nelson kick into high gear. That’s normally right after Thanksgiving. They split up shifts in a round-the-clock operation: spraying water, layer after layer, on the city’s four outdoor hockey rinks and two pleasure rinks.

Some cities still flood and maintain rinks with firehouses, but Ramsey uses a 2,000-gallon tank truck. The truck is more comfortable for workers, safer, and quicker.

A tanker truck also creates better ice, according to Byron and Wendy Wohlwend, who helps maintain six park district rinks in Duluth.

“How you flood is a big deal,” Byron says, “so you don’t get ridges in your ice. You have to be able to put that nice smooth coat out and get off. We have really strong ice because we build in slow layers.”

“You don’t want to put too much down,” Wohlwend says, “because when you’re driving through with the next load, it will crack. You’re better off putting multiple thin layers down than one thick layer.”

Flooding night and day

In Ramsey, drivers make as many as 16 round-trips each shift to each park. “You come back, fill up, go to the other facility, do the exact same thing, come back, and just keep going,” Byron says. “We run our truck 24 hours. That thing’s nonstop for two weeks straight.

“I really enjoy it. It’s fast-paced. You’re going nonstop, yet kind of like your own boss at the same time.”

Working nights brings its own adventures, Byron says. A couple of years ago, two deer stepped in front of Byron’s tanker. “Got both of them,” he says. “There was no stopping the truck.”

Another time, a coupler broke while he was refilling the tanker at 3 a.m. “The hose is just ‘pfffewww,’ all over the place, and I had to belly crawl through the water, back to the fire hydrant, reach up with one hand, shut the hydrant down. If I’d gotten cracked in the head, no one would have found me until morning.”

Adjusting to the weather

Ramsey tries to build 8 inches of ice before it opens its rinks to the public. In an ideal year, once the ice is good, workers spend a few hours each morning cleaning the rinks, then laying down a fresh coat of water to replace what skaters scraped away. There’s another reason to keep adding water.

“It keeps evaporating off,” Wohlwend says. “It goes away. It’s amazing. It keeps shrinking, even when it’s cold out.”

The outdoor rinks in Ramsey and Duluth are not refrigerated, “so it’s 100 percent Mother Nature,” Byron says. Each type of winter brings different challenges.

“It looks pretty cut and dried, but there’s other stuff to it,” he says.

Mild winters, of course, make it harder to create ice and keep it in good shape. “People think 32 degrees is freezing. Yup, it is. But even at 28 degrees, you can’t put down water. It’s not going to freeze in time; it’s going to be soft.”

Snowy winters pull workers off the rinks to handle snow removal and other duties. That gives them less time to spend with the ice, and also means they’ve got more work to do to keep the ice in shape. “You can get machines to do only so much, then you’ve got to hand-shovel,” Byron says.

Even cold winters can be a problem. “It’s a Catch 22,” Wohlwend says. “You don’t want it super, super cold, because the hose will freeze and the sprayers will freeze. But you don’t want it too warm, because then your water won’t freeze.”

“You get nights where it’s 1 or 2 degrees out, and if you don’t get off that rink fast enough, you’re going to leave marks from your tires,” Byron says.

“It’s harder than a lot of people think it is,” Byron says. “There’s so many variables that you don’t see unless you’re doing it.”

When Duluth city workers like Wendy Wohlwend show up to clear the rinks skaters are "happy to see me," she says. "You get to be a hero for a day."

It’s not all work, however. “Every once in a while after work, we’ll meet up and go skate for a little bit,” Byron says. “It’s kind of nice to enjoy your own ice.”

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