There’s a good chance that if you grew up in the rural prairies, you have fond memories of skating under the sky and stars with your friends and neighbours.
Times like that leave a lasting impression, and not just because of the frostbite.
When this pandemic-mangled winter finally takes its place in the history books, likely under “wretched,” the experience of skating outside will be etched into the memory of many rural children, and these may be among their best memories of these troubled times.
This is because COVID-19 has caused a resurgence of the outdoor rink.
“Usually, our kids were in 4-H, but there is no 4-H this year so they needed some responsibility and something to do,” said Travis Wiens.
“Our kids are 13, 14, and 16, so you need to keep them busy.”
Wiens lives about five kilometres from Milestone, Sask., that has an arena his children could use pretty much any time they wanted, as long as the ice was open.
But that’s not an option this winter.
So he found a used grain bag and put up a 24-by-40 foot outdoor rink, which he calls the Covidplex.
“Our dugout is so low that it wasn’t keeping up any more, so we had to have a discussion if we wanted to invest our fancy water from town into this or not,” Wiens said.
“We’ve spent money on stupider things. We’re glad we did it.”
Wiens sells seed for Pioneer Hybrid and is an adviser for Global Ag Risk Solutions. He said outdoor rinks are common in his area this year.
“I have probably 10 customers with (outdoor rinks) with all different skill sets. It’s amazing how many have gone up this year, and lots are by rookies,” Wiens said.
A social media network has emerged where people ask for advice on how to build rinks, and to show off what they’ve made.
“There are a few of us that talk back and forth about how much water it took to build it, and things we’ve done, like what we’re using for lights and all the other extras that people have added or not. It’s cool,” Wiens said.
Discussions and images of the Covidplex started to dominate his Twitter account, so he elected to give Covidplex its own twitter handle: @covidplex.
He said his children will always remember this pandemic winter, and the Covidplex is a way for him to make sure they also have good memories of this time.
But his children are not the only people who benefit from the outdoor rink.
“I encourage everyone that during these times that it’s nice to have a reason to get up in the morning and to do something that isn’t COVID related, to do something as a distraction,” Wiens said.
Dwain Bergen’s children will not have a normal school schedule this winter because of the pandemic, so he figured they needed something to keep them busy at home.
So he put up an 80- by 150-foot outdoor rink on a pond by his farmhouse near Plum Coulee, Man.
“Right now they are only going to school every other day, so they need to get out and do something physical,” Bergen said.
“They’ve been out there helping me flood and it will be their job to shovel. They’re old enough, and I’m old enough, that I don’t need to shovel. They can shovel.”
This isn’t the first time Bergen built a rink on the farm, although he hadn’t built one for a few years.
This year, however, he said making an outdoor rink on the farm was an obvious move.
“It sure seems like everyone is putting up a rink this year,” Bergen said.
“I cut a couple holes in it (pond) with my chainsaw and I’m using a three inch pump. Trying to flood it to get her smooth, and then I have some homemade boards on one end of the rink and got those set up. I have a hockey net set up, and they spend hours skating away out there.”
He also parked a dry trailer van at the edge of the rink and mounted lights on it so the rink can be used through the night.
“They can go 24 hours a day if they want,” he said.
Bergen coaches his 15-year-old son in the U18 hockey league and even though the league is cancelled this year, coaching is not.
“Once in a while you have to put these kids in their place and go out there to show them who’s boss,” Bergen said.
This is the first year Joel Heggie built an outdoor rink beside his farm house near Leross, Sask.
“I raided a neighbour’s stockpile of wind breaks he uses for his animals, I’ll give it back in the springtime, to make the edges,” Heggie said.
“I underestimated how level my ground was. It took a lot more water than I was expecting on the one side. I’m close to 10,000 gallons I put down so far.”
Fortunately for Heggie there’s a community well near his house and he has a 1,000-gallon water tank he typically uses to wash his vehicles with slough water.
Heggie’s five-year-old daughter can still use the local arena for skating class, but public skating is cancelled and he anticipates further restrictions are coming.
“She loves skating. I didn’t think the rink would be used as much as it is, but you can’t keep her off it. It’s awesome,” Heggie said.
So far Heggie’s daughter, nieces, nephew and his two-year old neighbour have used the 60- by 40-foot rink.
“With all the rules we just let them go out and take her daughter for a skate,” Heggie said.
“Anybody that wants to can come out, and we’ll abide by all necessary rules, but if they want to come and shoot the puck around, as long as their dads know how to fix vinyl siding if a puck goes through my house, then they can use it.”
Jay Schultz said outdoor rinks are also popular this year around Standard, Alta.
“I’ve seen a huge uptake in people building outdoor rinks, especially farmers this year. They are cleaning off that dugout and flooding it. Everyone is anticipating spending a lot more time around home,” Schultz said.
Schultz is the president of the Standard and District Agricultural Society, which built a full regulation size 200- by 85-foot outdoor rink beside the existing arena, a project spurred on by the society’s vice-president, Trent Sundgaard.
In the fall of 2019, producers in the area were unable to harvest because it was too wet for a time, so the ag society gathered community members to set the rebar and pour the foundation for the outdoor rink.
This year the weather has been unseasonably warm, but it’s finally cooled down enough so that Sundgaard and Schultz can start to get the ice in.
They will likely be ready just in time because hockey and public skating inside the arena has been cancelled, but outdoor rinks have not been shut down.
“This year, I don’t think you can put a price on it,” Schultz said.
“To have something we can do as a family, to go and get some exercise and keep up on hockey skills, will be pretty important.”
In a normal winter, Schultz would be in the arena five or six days a week because all three of his kids are in hockey, he plays in a beer league and helps coach one of his boys teams.
“In rural Alberta your social life for the winter is your hockey family,” Schultz said.
“It’s pretty vital to have that community of hockey parents. It’s something that’s kind of a routine that you do every week, that you look forward to.”