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Outdoor rink enthusiasts greet winter’s cold return

Robert McLeman, Colin Robertson, and Haydn Lawrence test out a backyard rink, which can be added to the map on RinkWatch. [Submitted]

With the arrival of the cold weather – really, really cold – it’s time for that most Canadian of undertakings: the backyard rink.

Robert McLeman, Colin Robertson, and Haydn Lawrence test out a backyard rink, which can be added to the map on RinkWatch.[Submitted]
Robert McLeman, Colin Robertson, and Haydn Lawrence test out a backyard rink, which can be added to the map on RinkWatch. [Submitted]
Robert McLeman and Colin Robertson, Wilfrid Laurier University professors, started RinkWatch two winters ago to track outdoor rinks across Canada and the United States.

McLeman said they’re keen on getting the broader public involved in environmental science and at that time it was a very mild winter, after a number of mild winters in a row.

“We were starting to see reports from scientists saying that the outdoor rink was an endangered species so we thought that’s it, maybe we should gather information from people who actually make backyard rinks,” McLeman said. “And maybe this is a way to connect the public with climate change and get some data.”

The concept is simple. People with backyard rinks or outdoors rinks at their local park can pin the location on  the map on their website and come back on a regular basis with updates on whether the weather allowed them to skate or not.

“Within a couple of weeks we had literally hundreds of people trying to register their rinks,” McLeman said. “One of the things we learned from the users was while they enjoyed giving information about their rinks they also wanted to speak to one another and share photos and rink making tips. We created user forums so those have been quite popular.”

He said well over a thousand people have participate in the project over the last two winters. They’re hoping to get people coming back year after year. They’re using the data to compare one year to the next and compare rinks within the same area.

“Here in Waterloo Region we tend to get all our weather reports from the Breslau airport,” McLeman said. “But as you know from up in Elmira to down in Cambridge you can get very different weather conditions on one drive.”

They can then use this data to find out what’s going on with the weather, on a more local scale. One of the things they found out so far is that during the first cold snap in November, there were people out West making rinks and skating on them, which he says is a very early start. At that time there were also people skating outside in Ottawa, for instance.

“We get good pockets. We get a lot in Waterloo Region, and metro Toronto,” McLeman said. “We get a lot in the Montreal region and then the United States we get quite few in Chicago, Boston, Detroit-Windsor region. And then, of course, out West. Right now we have rinks from Maine as far as Edmonton and as far south as into Ohio.”

They’re also giving the data to their students to see what they can do with it in terms of innovative mapping techniques. He says it gives families a context to talk about climate change and their own experiences.

“It really does provide people a way they can learn about climate change and make connections to their own daily lives,” McLeman said. “If you like going outside skating it’s terrible when it warms up outside in the winter.”

They hope the project keeps going because to talk about climate change you need year after year data. They’d also like it to continue because it’s become an online meeting place for people who love outdoor sports in the winter.

“There seems to be a bit of revival around building the backyard rink and we’d like to explore that this year,” McLeman said.

Elmira’s Kevin Schmitt has been building a rink in his backyard for his kids for years to practice hockey. After getting started, mild temperatures in December left him with a giant puddle.

“It’s rare you’re on before December,” Schmitt said. “You need nights that get minus-10. The ground’s not cold yet, either.”

Mild temperatures weren’t an issue last winter.

“Last year was a phenomenal year for rinks,” Schmitt said.

It was plenty cold to keep outdoor rinks frozen but there was a lot of snow and clearing to be done.

“With everything the (Old Farmer’s) Almanac and the weather forecast said we should hopefully have another awesome year,” Schmitt said.

Despite being heavily involved in hockey, Schmitt didn’t have a rink in his backyard growing up. He said he learned to make it through trial-and-error and people around Elmira giving him tips.

It’s important for him to keep the rink going each year to allow his kids to enjoy the winter outside.

“It’s a totally different feeling skating on an outdoor rink than in the arenas,” Schmitt said. “It allows them to do outdoor activities with their friends in the winter months.”

He laughs and says his kids would much rather go outside and go skating than help shovel. As they’ve gotten older they’ve used the outdoor rink less, but they still use it for games with their friends and extra hockey practice.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d be out there eight to 10 hours in a day if time permitted,” Schmitt said. “You’d be bringing out lunch and dinner.”

To add your outdoor rink to the map and see where other ones are visit www.rinkwatch.org.



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