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Ice-making system failure leaves Anchorage curlers high and dry

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 28, 2014

Curlers need -- in the simplest terms -- two things: A set of rocks to throw and ice on which to throw them.

This winter, the Anchorage Curling Club finds itself without one of those. It locked its doors in October after discovering its ice-making system had stopped working. The club hasn't reopened since.

Barbara Harmon, Anchorage Curling Club board treasurer, provided a grim forecast for curlers in Anchorage on Tuesday when she said "probably, right now, there's no curling for the rest of the season." At least not indoors.

For indoor curlers, options limited

For some curlers, like 17-year-old Naimy Schommer, the news hit hard. On Monday, Schommer, an aspiring Olympian, recounted the day in early October when her father came home and said the club had closed indefinitely.

"It was a rough couple of days," Schommer said. "It was almost like everything you had been working toward since you were 8 years old was gone."

In Alaska, competitive curlers have two options when it comes to indoor ice: the Anchorage Curling Club, nestled in Government Hill, and the Fairbanks Curling Club, a larger facility roughly 350 road miles north.

Sure, the state has plenty of frozen lakes and hockey arenas, but what makes curling ice unique is something called "pebbling." An ice technician sprays water droplets onto the ice, which freeze into thousands of tiny bumps. When a rock passes over the surface, the friction melts the bumps and creates a layer of water on which the more than 40-pound rocks glide.

Asking a curler to use outdoor or hockey ice instead of the pebbled surface is like asking a figure skater to perform on a frozen lake or a golfer to putt in an overgrown backyard -- it's feasible, but not optimal.

The cost of ice

Brian Sweeney, Anchorage Curling Club Board president, said problems arose with the club's current ice-making system in late September, when the club's head ice maker noticed he was pouring more propylene glycol and water into the pipes than normal.

The system, they concluded, likely had a hole in it, allowing the mixture to seep into the soil or concrete. But, with much of the system buried in the concrete, the club was unable to identify the source of the problem, Sweeney said. It notified the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

Bill O'Connell, environmental program manager with DEC, said Wednesday it is believed the leak caused the system to dispense about 40 gallons of glycol-water mix, though he described the department's concern as "low," noting the "relatively low toxicity" of propylene glycol.

"They don't anticipate it having any effects to human health or the environment," O'Connell said

The Anchorage Curling Club has drained its pipes and started trying to find new ice, which has taken longer than expected, Sweeney said.

Instead of digging up the ice-making system's piping, the club's board has proposed it purchase two portable ice mats that would lie over the current floor and cost up to $60,000, Sweeney said. By mid-December, they were still getting estimates on the mats.

"It's like any other big project: You keep hoping maybe we can get this done by January, maybe we can get this done by February, maybe we can get this done by Fur Rondy," he said.

On Tuesday, he said, it was looking like it might not be until next curling season -- which spans from October to April -- the Anchorage Curling Club will have indoor ice.

A long history

The Anchorage Curling Club dates back to 1954, five years before Alaska statehood but nearly 50 years after the Fairbanks Curling Club formed.

The Anchorage club first settled into a building on the west side until heavy snow collapsed the roof in 1958. Four years later, the club moved to its current facility, which underwent major renovations after it was damaged by the Good Friday earthquake in 1964.

Since then, not much has changed at the two-sheet club, Sweeney said.

Each winter, teams of four sign up for the season, and occasionally businesses rent out space so their employees can try the sport.

"It's a sport that anyone can play," Sweeney said. "A lot of people describe it as chess on ice."

During the past few years, the tight-knit curling community in Anchorage has grown, with club membership increasing from 80 three years ago to 140 to 160 last season, Sweeney said.

Board members credit some of the new interest to the Winter Olympics and also to the success of Jessica Schultz, an two-time Olympian who came out of the Anchorage Curling Club.

"We had a lot of new members last year and probably had a lot of excitement going into this year and boom," Sweeney said -- his "boom" referring to the broken ice-making system.

He said he hopes the difficulties this year don't hurt the club's future membership.

What's next

In the long term, the club hopes to move into a larger facility where it can have more ice sheets and accommodate more members, said Ty Schommer, father of Naimy and an Anchorage Curling Club member spearheading expansion efforts.

Currently, the club is limited to about 160 members. Between the club's two ice sheets, only 16 curlers can play at once.

For now, the club is in the process of creating a nonprofit, the Anchorage Curling Foundation, so it can accept tax-deductible donations to fund the new ice mats and the prospective new building, which the mats could be moved to.

The club is mostly supported by member dues and rental costs, with a smaller portion of revenue streaming from alcohol sales at the in-club bar, Sweeney said.

But since the club closed, it doesn't receive any of those incomes -- except for the dues from a small number of families who did not withdraw their payments when the club announced it would not open on time this year. That money will help pay the club's insurance and utility bills, Harmon said.

It is not clear when exactly the club will receive its nonprofit status or the ice mats, Sweeney said.

In the interim, Harmon said, the club has received the go-ahead from Anchorage Parks and Recreation Department to build a rink on a tennis court next to the club. While not optimal for curling, she said, it would at least afford curlers the chance to throw rocks in Anchorage this season.

On Tuesday, she said, they were just looking for someone to make the ice.