The art and science of making curling ice
Making ice is an art form and Mitch Mertens of the Medford Curling Club is a master artist.
Mertens has been in charge of the ice making and maintenance at the curling club for many years and in addition serves as a member of the sport’s national ice making team. He is part of the team that travels around the country to prepare and maintain the ice for national tournaments and other competitions.
On Saturday morning, I served as Mertens’ spotter as he began the process of getting the ice ready for this year’s curling season. My job was to stand in the compressor room doorway and watch. If anything went wrong, it would be my job to get help. Admittedly it was not a very glamorous job, but was a necessary one when starting up the compressor that used ammonia gas to cool the ethylene glycol that runs through tubes buried in the concrete floor of the curling ice area.
Mertens had already put in many hours over the previous days, weeks and months to get to this point. Over the summer, technicians serviced the compressor replacing gaskets and doing maintenance as needed.
The week before, Mertens swept out the rink area and using a floor scrubber washed the concrete floor to make sure there was no dirt there. With the compressor’s machinery running, it was time to wait as it cooled the concrete down to below freezing.
The existing Medford Curling Club was built in 1946. With World War 2, construction materials were in short supply making plans to build a new club a challenge. Club members learned of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp being decommissioned in Perkinstown and took advantage of the opportunity and took the building apart and put it up on land along the Black River that had been donated to the club by Hurd Millwork. As with most clubs built in that era, they used natural means to cool the ice through openings in the sides. This occasionally resulted in the need to shovel snow off the ice before games could be played as well as requiring bonspiels to be played in overnight hours when the temperatures were colder. Over the years, the club has made improvements and has used artificial ice for decades.
After the floor chilled, Mertens put a light spray of water on it to seal the floor and settle any dust that may have fallen since he scrubbed it. This was done in preparation for a crew to lay the paper on Sunday night.
The curling club used wide rolls of bright white paper to provide the base for the playing surface.
Before beginning the process, Mertens walked volunteers through what they would be doing. He also apologized in advance for any yelling that might occur. The crew was a mixture of newbies and veterans with many years of paper laying experience.
“Water is the key,” Mertens said, emphasizing the need for those operating the hoses to keep the concrete wet and paper wet, but not so wet that it tears.
Mertens assembles the crew and assigns each person tasks. Some operate hoses spraying ultra-pure water in front and on the paper as it being laid. Chuck and Brady Tlusty had the job of hold the edges of the paper setting it in place on the board walk and lining it up with marks to give a slight, but not too much, overlap with the sheet in next to it. Mertens and Zak Rau handled rolling the paper. A task that takes a steady hand an a eye to correcting any mishaps. The plan was to roll out about 10 feet of paper have the “hosers” Jeff Mueller and Tony Meyer spray it down and gently lay it on the icy wet concrete floor. A crew of sweepers with soaked push brooms followed behind working out air bubbles and smoothing wrinkles.
I started on that crew, but after having one foot go north and the other go south and having the natural grace of a boulder falling down a cliff, I passed off the job to my son, Alex, a member of the Medford high school curling team, to work alongside Bill Grunewald and Steve Delonay.
Dennis Christianson kept the water flowing from the tanks and kept the hoses from getting tangled.
A little over 90 minutes later and the paper was down and the water was quickly freezing solid. Following days see yarn being used to place lines in the ice playing area. The large 12-foot wide bullseyes that form the houses go in later this week. The traditional red and blue circles have been replaced this year with solid mesh circles with sponsorships on them from Nestle Pizza, Prevail Bank, Forward Bank, State Street Wealth Management and Medford Cooperative.
Over the course of the next week, additional pieces of the ice puzzle will come together, each following the same pattern of a thin layer of water, followed by more water on top.
Once the base surface is ready, Mertens and other volunteers will use the club’s scraper to smooth the ice before applying the pebble, the water droplets that texture the ice and allow the rocks to follow their distinctive curling path down the sheet.
Mertens is confident that the ice will be ready for play by November 11, just in time for the club to have its first night of open curling for the season on Friday, Nov. 13. The Medford Area Senior High School team is scheduled to begin practice on November 16 and leagues are scheduled to start after Thanksgiving.