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Slip into a new sport: Ice skating

Jackie Bartz
Erik Hill

Warm winter weather has had Alaskans slipping and sliding all along the sidewalks and streets of Anchorage. The state seems to have traded snow for ice, much to the distaste of snowmachiners and cross-country and alpine skiers. But maybe instead of swearing at the lack of snow, Alaskans should consider embracing the bounty of ice.

"It's a beautiful spot," said Chuck Gilbert, vice president of the Alaska Speedskating Club, about Cuddy Family Midtown Park. "You look up at the Chugach Mountains; it's very cool to go around the ice during the day."

Ice skating in Anchorage offers beautiful scenery and opportunities for exercise, but this week, there's something else piquing people's interest as well. Millions of viewers are glued to the Winter Olympics, and some of the most popular events involve a pair of skates. The grace of figure skaters and fitness of speed skaters and hockey players takes years of training, but simply enjoying the ice without falling is something everyone can do with a little practice.

Rinks in the Anchorage area

There are many opportunities for ice skating in and around Anchorage. Lakes usually have frozen up enough by Thanksgiving, and the city maintains the ice in several places, including Cheney Lake, Cuddy Family Midtown Park and Westchester Lagoon. The Lagoon is arguably the most popular skating spot, but Cuddy Park and Potter Marsh also see their fair share of blades.

For skaters looking for something more specific, Tikishla Park, Mulcahy Park and Delaney are maintained for hockey; Delaney is also maintained for figure skating; and the Cuddy Midtown Skating Oval is a 400-meter track used for speedskating. There are also indoor skating rinks at Ben Boeke Indoor Ice Arena, Subway Sports Center, Dimond Ice Chalet and the Wells Fargo Sports Complex.

The warm weather has been a problem for many winter sports, and it isn't ideal for ice skating either. Above-freezing temperatures created overflow -- water on top of ice. This is more of a problem in the backcountry than inside Anchorage, where rinks are maintained by the municipality.

The municipality conducts weekly ice tests on the maintained rinks and posts information about the thickness and conditions every Thursday on the Anchorage Parks and Recreation website. The most recent report says all of the maintained rinks around town are in good condition. Many of the rinks are hot mopped daily in an attempt to maintain smooth ice, which is essential for sports like speedskating and figure skating.

Speedskating

Speedskating is a sport often forgotten until the Winter Games take over TV. While it's normally not the most accessible activity, Anchorage residents have an edge. The city's speed skating oval at Cuddy Park, opened in 2008, is the only full-length speedskating oval in Alaska and only the sixth in the country, according to the Anchorage Park Foundation. A short track is also available at the J. McDonald Memorial Center (Mac Center) in Eagle River.

"The thrill of going fast on ice is quite attractive," said Gilbert. "It's really good exercise. It's a low-impact sport; there's not a lot of falling"

Gilbert said the Alaska Speedskating Club has been around for 15 years, but the speedskating oval in Midtown has boosted its popularity. Through lessons and special events, the club is helping to raise awareness and encourage people to try the sport. Every year, the club hosts a duathlon: a race where people speedskate and skate ski. The fundraiser is the club's most popular event and raises money to maintain the rink. The club also hosts Tuesday night speedskating races every other Tuesday.

Speedskating "makes the whole winter pass all too quickly," said Gilbert. "A lot of people don't like to see the ice go and think it's too short."

Lessons are available several times a week and are listed on the club's website, alaskaspeedskating.com.

Getting started

Adults and children who are shaky on their skates -- or have never laced up a pair before -- can learn the basics at group and private classes. Lessons for all ages are available at Ben Boeke and Dempsey Anderson Arena, Subway Center, Dimond Center and Mac Center in Eagle River. There are group and individual lessons, as well as group skate sessions.

"Every kid that grows up in Anchorage should learn how to ice skate," said Jim Renkert of Anchorage Skates, a nonprofit group aimed at getting kids out on the ice. "We live in a winter city. It's a fun activity, a family activity."

For novice skaters, young and old, there are a few basics to bring along. Both indoor and outside rinks are cold, so dressing the part is important. Layering is the key to staying warm, as are hats and gloves. If you take a tumble, gloves will keep your fingers warm on the ice. Helmets and knee pads are also something to consider.

Affordable skates

The most important piece of equipment is a pair of skates -- usually hockey or figure skates. Many of the local indoor rinks have ice skate rentals; the cost at Dimond Center and Ben Boeke is under $5 for the day. Ice skates are sold at most sporting goods stores in Anchorage, and the prices range from $30 to hundreds of dollars. Play It Again Sports also sells used skates at a discounted price.

Nordic skates are a creative option for those who already own a cross-country ski setup. The narrow, versatile blade attaches directly to a cross-country ski boot, turning it into an ice skate. Alaska Mountaineering & Hiking in Anchorage rents out Nordic skates for $10 a day.

Whether a person is interested in ice skating for exercise or family bonding time, the rink is a wonderful place to recreate. Learning the basics can open the sport up to more niche areas like backcountry skating or speedskating.

Seasoned skaters like Gilbert encourage people to try it out and see where it takes them.

"Just get on the ice and start doing it -- that's a good start."

 


By JACKIE BARTZ
Daily News correspondent