It's THE SOUND OF ICE that grasped me first. I'd heard massive Arctic ice floes, 5 feet thick, eerily groan against each other like prehistoric monsters in combat, as unseen currents beneath swept them along at will. But standing out there in our Montana backyard with the temperature nearing zero, I heard the ice merely cracking all around as I hosed yet another layer of well water onto the homemade hockey rink.
It's not something California dads are likely to confront soon. Most may dread or have fled the idea of winter. But like thousands of parents in northern North America I had built an ice rink for our child, 30-by-60 feet of laser-leveled dirt, packed and rimmed by railroad ties nailed to the ground with 6-foot steel spikes. For two days at Thanksgiving the lawn sprinkler rotated in the cold air, soaking the freezing ground. Then, every few hours we hosed the area to gradually fill in the cavities and create a glass-like surface that became a legal addiction.
Most afternoons our son and his friends would skate over the rink, racing, shooting pucks, winning Stanley Cups and creating a rosy-cheeked daily fable of heroics that dominated dinner conversation. I returned from work each evening demanding the identity of the culprit who'd severely scratched my ice. But, honestly, I was disappointed when he hadn't. Because then I could not make ice, an eighth of an inch at a time, all by myself in the midwinter mountain darkness. Although sometimes I did anyway.
At all hours I'd lug the hose outdoors, hook it up and begin watering the rink from the far corner slowly back to the nearest. It reminded me of those Disney paintbrushes that sweep swiftly across the cartoon screen leaving a colorful panorama behind. Except mine was all white. And suddenly smooth. First came the crackling as warm water and cold ice collided, then merged. The dissipating heat rose in thin wisps to briefly cloud the view of twinkling town lights in the valley below. The water refilled the cracks and sat there.
Then, a powerful silence.
If winds blew, the towering pines might moan softly. Or an animal could howl. Otherwise it was the purest quiet imaginable, leaving me on a black-and-white mountainside standing alone in boots and parka, looking like an orange Michelin man gazing upon his finishing masterpiece. Watching it evolve before my very eyes. I'd turn off the floodlights and above emerged uncountable numbers of stars, possibly the moon. Enough starlight to make shadows at midwinter midnight.
Within minutes the water silently turned from shiny wet to transparent syrup and then magically, drop by drop, into the clearest, brightest, hardest of ice, awaiting little bladed feet. In the meantime its chilled surface captured all the white stars from above.
Such a simple, amazing sight. And it was all mine. No matter what I did by day indoors, nothing could ever near the satisfaction of making glistening ice outdoors in the solitary silence of a wintry mountain midnight.
By late March, the homemade glacier, by then 9 inches thick, was slowly melting into the thawing soil. Now, even in the California sun, the memory of making new ice alone in the backyard remains wondrously warming and, best of all, far more enduring than the ice.
Andrew H. Malcolm is a Times editorial writer.