The lack of snowfall and recent rain has put a halt to many popular winter activities in Maine, but for ice skaters, conditions are ideal, especially for those who enjoy skating on wild ice.
Tucked in the woods in Dedham, a natural ice rink has formed this winter, said 9-year-old Hailee Dearborn. It’s not quite a pond, but a depression in the land that fills with water when it rains — and Maine has seen plenty of rain recently. Hailee and her little sister, Ashlyn, have been skating on the natural ice rink after school with the next-door neighbors several times a week.
“My friends and I like to play snowball tag on ice skates because we can all skate pretty fast,” Hailee said, “so then there’s not one person who’s a little slower.”
Snowball tag is a simple game. The person who is “it” chases all the other players, trying to hit them with snowballs. Whoever gets hit with a snowball becomes “it,” and the game goes on, and on, often until the sun sets and their parents call them indoors for dinner.
“I like that you can go really fast,” said Hailee. “You can go faster than you can run most of the time … and sometimes, you just fall for fun because it’s kind of fun to slide.”
The ice covers about a quarter acre, interrupted here and there with trees, trapped sticks and humps of land. Last winter, the natural rink didn’t exist because there wasn’t enough rain. And the winter before, there was so much snowfall that it was hard to keep up with shoveling the ice off.
“You can find more challenges in wild ice,” said Ashlyn, who at 6 years old is already comfortable gliding across the rink, navigating around tricky air bubbles and zooming down the small hills that form when the ice breaks.
As far as traditional winter activities go in Maine, ice skating is right up there with sledding, ice fishing and building snowmen. For many northeast residents, winter wouldn’t be quite the same without it.
“My grandmother had a pond and we skated on that sometimes,” said the girls’ mother, Heather Dearborn, who grew up in Hermon and recently visited a local outfitter — Gunn’s Sport Shop in Brewer — to purchase herself a pair of skates so she could join her daughters on the wild ice.
“They were sold out because so many people have been buying skates this winter,” Heather Dearborn said. “They’re getting 40 more pairs on Tuesday, and I’ve having them hold a pair for me.”
“This year has been very good,” said Rick Gunn, owner of Gunn’s Sport Shop. “It’s probably the best January we’ve had in at least 10 years. There’s a lot of outdoor ice, and there isn’t much for snowmobiling, locally anyway. There’s been a lot of interest this year. We’ve been getting in 30 to 40 pairs of skates every week.”
Once Heather Dearborn has her skates, she’ll be good to go.
One of the things that makes ice skating so popular is the fact that it’s an activity with a low barrier to entry. It only requires two things: ice and skates. It’s also a versatile sport. On skates, you can play games or learn figure skating tricks, race between ice fishing traps or simply glide along, enjoying the crisp, fresh air of winter.
For the Fremouw-Henry family in Orono, it’s all about hockey.
About 10 years ago, Thane Fremouw and his wife, Clarissa Henry, built a small ice rink in their backyard for their 5-year-old son, who was just starting to learn how to play hockey at the time. Over the years, that rink has expanded and improved. Today, it’s 35 feet wide and 55 feet long, lined with a polyethylene tarp, and framed with two-by-fours, plywood and PVC pipes. And in the evening, the family lights the ice with four 500-watt outdoor lights and strings of Christmas lights.
The couple’s two sons — Kell, who is now 15 years old, and Rowen, 12 — both play hockey on local teams. Kell plays defense on the Orono-Old Town high school team, and Rowen plays goalie in the Maine Junior Black Bears hockey program.
“Some of the friends that play on their teams come over, and then some kids who have never skated,” Thane Fremouw said.
“One of my friends, he didn’t know how to skate when he first came here, and he learned a lot,” said Rowen. “Now he’s actually pretty good. He can stay up and skate.”
If another kid was thinking about learning how to ice skate, Rowen said he would encourage them.
“I would probably say that he can come over here,” Rowen said. “I’m not a good teacher, but my mom is kind of good at it.”
“We have extra skates and stuff like that,” Thane Fremouw said. “The boys have grown out of skates, and we’ve kept them all for when the family from Pennsylvania comes up or friends come over. We usually have a pair that might not fit perfectly, but they can at least get out there and have fun.”
Just like the Dearborns, the Orono family has to shovel off their ice every time it snows, and everyone who can pitches in. They also have a homemade zamboni-like contraption made of PVC pipe and a vinyl door sweep to smooth over the backyard rink after heavy activity.
The unseasonably warm temperatures and sleet have wreaked havoc on the Fremouw’s rink recently, but they’ve been keeping a close eye on the weather forecast, and next week is supposed to be colder, Thane Fremouw said.
“Hopefully next week, we’ll get out there again,” he said.
For people who don’t have a backyard rink or pond, public ice skating spots abound in Maine. In the Bangor area alone, popular skating spots include Sawyer Arena in Bangor, Penobscot Ice Arena in Brewer and the Alfond Arena in Orono. There are also multiple city parks where ice rinks are created, including Bangor’s Broadway Park, Chapin Park, Fairmount Park, Stillwater Park and Bangor Gardens Park. And for wild ice, people can start with bodies of water with public landings, such as Fields Pond in Holden and Pushaw Lake, which can be easily accessed from Gould’s Landing in Orono.