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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘Nature does the rest’: With limited options in Spokane, backyard ice rinks are gaining ground

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 11, 2021

Caleb Hoogendam skates on his backyard ice rink Jan. 28, as the ice was melting. He says the work of maintaining the ice is worth it  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Caleb Hoogendam skates on his backyard ice rink Jan. 28, as the ice was melting. He says the work of maintaining the ice is worth it (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

When Matt and Heather Petro started dating, they would ice skate on every pond and rink they could find.

Years later, when the couple got married and had their son, Brendan, they couldn’t wait to get him on the ice. When he was 2 years old, Matt built a makeshift ice rink in the family’s back yard out of an old waterbed mattress and some 2x2 boards so that their toddler could learn to skate.

When Brendan got a bit older, his dad ordered a kit from the company Nicerink to build a more substantial rink, and a tradition began.

“I came home from school one day and there was a big package on the front door, and I thought that Santa came early,” Brendan, now 21, recalled. “Then they set up the first backyard rink when we were on a military base … and I absolutely loved it.”

Backyard ice rinks are a favorite among do-it-yourselfers who want the freedom to ice skate at their leisure. Costco even sells kits to help streamline the process of building a rink ranging from $40 to more than $400.

Ice skating options in Spokane are limited, with less than a handful of rinks and no public ponds that allow skating. There are multiple parks in Spokane that do have small ponds, but municipal code does not allow any activities on or in the ponds.

“Obviously safety is the number one factor,” said Fianna Dickson with the Parks and Recreation Department. “The other is habitat.”

With limited skating options in Spokane, many people are opting to bring the ice home by building their own backyard rinks.

Despite moving around frequently while Matt was in the Air Force, the couple continued to build rinks. Now, decades later, it’s an annual family tradition.

“The build, honestly, these days I wouldn’t say I’ve gotten smarter, I’ve just gotten a little bit more efficient,” Matt said.

He puts the frame for the rink up over Thanksgiving weekend with help from Brendan, who drives home from the University of Idaho, where he plays on the hockey team.

Then, depending on the weather, he puts down a waterproof tarp into the square base during the beginning of December. Over the next week or so, Matt builds up the ice by misting the initial layer each day, Matt said.

“Quite honestly, it’s a labor of love,” Matt said.

“We love to host, and it’s just another way to gather friends and family together, too,” Heather added.

Their youngest daughter, Caitlyn, 15, isn’t as into hockey as her brother but loves bringing friends over to experience the backyard rink.

“It was kind of fun to grow up with it, and it was really cool to have friends over and get to experience it,” Caitlyn said. “It was always normal for me but it wasn’t normal for other people.”

For physician Stephen Pakkianathan, building a backyard ice rink was a chance to pass on his love of hockey to his children.

“I grew up really liking hockey,” Pakkianathan said.

But living in California, rollerblading was often as close as he could get. The first year he had a house in Spokane, Pakkianathan couldn’t wait to build his own rink.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “I put the tarp down, and it froze the pipes coming out of the garage, the well pipes froze, then the ice wasn’t thick enough.”

The first rink was such a disaster that Pakkianathan didn’t get any ice time. He decided to do some more research and try again. He had a friend level a portion of his yard to make sure the ice had a solid foundation, and it worked like a charm.

He makes sure to flood the rink when it’s really cold and usually has solid ice for a few months, depending on the weather.

This year, his rink is 40 feet by 60 feet, which is a lot of work to shovel when it snows but all worth it to see his four children skating, Pakkianathan said.

“It’s really cool that their first time on ice is in their backyard,” he said.

Back in medical school, Pakkianathan met a kindred spirit in Ben Bartsch, who now lives nearby and also builds his own backyard ice rink each year.

Not long after Bartsch moved to the area, Pakkianathan invited him to play hockey. That’s when Bartsch first heard about his friend’s backyard rink and was intrigued by the idea, so Pakkianathan suggested he build his own.

“I’m up for doing somewhat ridiculous things, so I said, ‘Yeah, seems like a good idea,’” Bartsch said.

Unlike Pakkianathan’s first try, Bartsch was successful and has been building rinks ever since.

“You want it as level as possible,” Bartsch said.

He had an excavator smooth out the area he selected for his rink, then took some 2x10x10 boards and made a 40-foot perimeter, then “dropped a piece of plastic on it” and filled it with water.

“That’s it, and then nature does the rest,” Bartsch said. “Of course, over the last couple years I keep adding little things here and there.”

Bartsch, who lives on 10 acres south of Spokane, built a warming hut and put LED lights under his ice to add that special glow.

“The biggest challenge is when it snows trying to get the snow off the ice,” Bartsch said. “If it’s enough snow, an inch, maybe two inches, I can just push it off with a big snow shovel.”

If there’s more snow, Bartsch said, he’ll use his snowblower. It’s important to remove the snow before it melts so it doesn’t ruin the ice, Bartsch said.

College student Caleb Hoogendam, 18, had always wanted to build his own ice rink. When his family moved to Mead from Western Washington a few years ago, he finally got his chance.

Hoogendam swapped an afternoon of yard work for a family friend who happens to be a contractor to get some extra wood to build the rink’s frame. He then ordered a plastic liner, and he was set.

After more than a decade playing hockey, most recently on the Spokane Junior Chiefs team, creating his own rink was a whole new experience.

His first try last year was full of ups and downs, Hoogendam said.

“There’s a lot of things I would do differently,” he said. “There’s little things you pick up and you learn.”

His first rink was under some trees in his parents’ backyard, which provided excellent shade but shed needles into the ice. After his freshman year at Calvin University, where he studies civil engineering, was pushed online due to COVID-19, Hoogendam came home to Spokane.

Just two days after he got back, he put up the rink and has spent the last two months skating nearly every day with his dad and his brother. Every day after he skates, Hoogendam sweeps off any ice he kicked up, then hooks up the hose and puts a thin layer of water on top of the rink.

“It’s a lot of work, but it can be worth it,” he said.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect spelling of Caitlyn Petro’s name.

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