WOONSOCKET — When forsythia blooms in December, it’s probably a bad omen for making ice.
But when the first true cold snap of the season settled over the region this week, Highway Foreman Rick Lambert knew it was time to crank up the ice-making machinery, at last.
That means the city’s municipal rink in River Island Park will finally open this year at 12:30 Saturday afternoon –roughly a month later than it did during last year’s more normal winter.
“We started making ice when we came back after New Year’s, on Tuesday,” Lambert said earlier this week.
City Hall has been fielding inquiries about when the rink would open since before Christmas, said Public Works Director Sheila McGauvran.
“Unfortunately, it just hasn’t been cold enough to make ice,” she said.
Lambert said overnight temperatures must remain at or below freezing for an extended period of time to make stable, artificial ice. Public works crews have been on standby since roughly Thanksgiving waiting and waiting some more for this season’s above-average temperatures to dip closer to something more like a typical New England winter.
It happened Tuesday when a mass of arctic air moved over the region, bringing the coldest temperatures of the season so far.
But it looks like the big chill is already on the way out. The National Weather Service is forecasting daytime highs back in the mid-40s today and tomorrow before dipping back a bit early next week.
Still, officials say it looks like it’s going to stay cold enough to maintain artificial ice.
The skating surface can tolerate a certain amount of above-freezing temperatures without melting because it’s cooled from below by a liquid similar to automotive anti-freeze. The glycol-based stuff flows through a network of rubbery tubes situated beneath the surface of the frozen water.
But ice can’t be made simply by flooding the oval, wooden berm that rings the pipes. The surface must be built up a little at a time, so the final result is a glistening, glass-like sheet that skaters can glide over effortlessly.
The process takes two to three days in the most ideal ice-making conditions, according to Lambert.
“Ideally we like to have about three and a half inches of ice so the pipes don’t get nicked by a skate,” says Lambert. “If that happens, then you’ve got an issue.”
In operation for roughly a decade, the rink may be the only artificial skating surface in the region that’s free to the public, as it has been since its inception. At the Bank of America City Center in Providence, adult admission is $6, children $3. Newport has a rink where adults are charged $7 to skate, children $5.
Not only are municipal rinks rare — and even more rarely free — some private rinks don’t offer public skating at all. At the Rhode Island Sports Center on Eddie Dowling Highway in North Smithfield, for example, ice time is reserved for hockey and is available for rent at rates ranging from $150 to $280 per hour, depending on the season and the time of day.
With resources to maintain such frills running thinner than ever, some members of the City Council have openly questioned whether the time has come to begin charging admission to the rink. Despite the talk, however, no one has offered a concrete proposal for changing the status quo.
McGauvran says there are no plans for establishing an admission fee for use of the city rink on the horizon, even for non-residents. She said the city might be able to recoup some costs by charging a fee, but the expense of running the rink would also increase because the city would need to assign someone to monitor the rink full time and collect fees.
In recent years, Mayor Leo T. Fontaine has increasingly looked to private donors and charitable contributions to underwrite the cost of maintaining the rink. Those efforts will continue this season, according to McGauvran.
While the cold weather lasts, the rink will be open every day from 12:30-9:30 p.m. daily.