On Frozen Pond: Outdoor Ice Skating in the Northwest

by Crai S. Bower | Photo by

The snow has fallen softly all night at Silver Star Ski Resort, and my kids can’t wait to go… ice skating! We’ve driven seven hours from Seattle to the Vernon, B.C. ski area in the Canadian Okanagan, but my kids are more interested in the frozen pond than skiing some of the best snow of the season. As a former college hockey player who gobbled up every chance to skate al fresco growing up in Western New York, how can I blame them?

Fortunately, while no one in my Seattle neighborhood transforms his backyard into a rink like my best friend does back home, the number of fresh air skating rinks is growing in the Northwest. Altitude, dry air and outdoor spirit blend perfectly along the entire corridor east of the Cascades, ideal for a romantic evening holding hands (and each other up!) or playing a spirited game of “shinny” (pick-up hockey with infinite numbers of players, varied skill levels and, my favorite, an absence of scorekeeping).

The Methow, Okanagan and Sun Valley join Whistler to form our brightest constellation of four season destinations that, not surprisingly, offer some of the best skating under the stars.

Last winter, I spent a few days in the Methow Valley. Reminiscent of growing up, I awoke at 7:00 Saturday morning to prepare for a 7:30 open hockey session at Winthrop’s fairly new outdoor ice arena. But my rink time was just a prelude to the highlight of the day, skating on frozen Patterson Lake.

“Isn’t that Justin Timberlake under that balaclava?”

Located below the resplendent Sun Mountain Lodge, Patterson joins Perrygin Lake as the Methow’s most dependable natural ice surfaces. The romance of skating under clear skies or a full moon trumps one’s lack of confidence to move across a lake on two thin blades of steel, as friends join me for infinite turns and even a little shinny, though the stick proves more crutch than athletic implement. As the afternoon light begins to dim, we repair to Sun Mountain’s Wolf Creek Bar for well-deserved hot toddies to cap a glorious day.

Many budding pro skaters get their start on the ice at regional rinks, such as the outdoor public rink in Salmon, Idaho. Above the indoor Ice Hockey rink in the central Idaho city of Salmon is an outdoor public rink with lights, a concession stand and distracting views of the nearby mountains. Whether you are wanting to figure skate, learn the basics or just watch others make fools of themselves on the ice, the outdoor rink in Salmon serves the purpose well. At Salmon, I’m never distracted by the celebrity sightings that occur at Sun Valley Resort’s more famous, star-studded ice rinks, but, at Salmon, with fewer distractions, I can concentrate on my form. And, in Victor, Idaho, the roofed but open-sided Kotler Ice Arena is southeastern Idaho’s go-to hub for fun on the ice.

Whistler’s no stranger to celebrity sightings. (“Isn’t that Justin Timberlake under that balaclava?”) What we didn’t see in the village, however, was an outdoor skating surface, a bizarre truth considering Canada’s obsession with all surfaces frozen. Fortunately, the 2010 Winter Olympics left a large public plaza as part of its legacy, ideal for winter flooding. The Whistler village skating rink may be smaller than its peers mentioned here, but the scenery and four-bladed romances can definitely claim equal stature.

Like several of the NHL’s best players, the Northwest’s finest outside skating can be found in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, a high desert canvas of great ice and even better ice wines. Outdoor rinks reside in almost every town here, home to avid ball hockey play in the summer and dozens of weekly hockey practices and games in winter. While I’m always up for playing outdoors on an actual rink, I greatly prefer when snow banks replace wooden boards, and the games only halt for communal shoveling of fresh fallen snow, an important tradition requisite in earning one’s skate turns.

You can imagine the surprise when my game of shinny at Big White Ski Resort was interrupted, not because it was time to grab shovels and clear a new rink, but by the arrival of an actual Zamboni, an ice resurfacing machine that magically carves, floods and smooths the ice so well that a gently curled puck would skim the surface effortlessly from diametrically opposite corners. The rink, rumored to be among the largest in Canada, is so big that I grab my Aussie teammates, all pure novices (and now hockey fanatics), grab the nets and move to a cleared swath to resume our game.

Like its sibling ski destination, Silver Star takes outdoor skating to new dimensions. A frozen pond is serviced by warming hut and café. The pond circles a small island of conifers, making for an exhaustive game of shinny or a potentially hazardous and hilarious game of “crack the whip.”

When in Spokane, we enjoy a few turns at the Riverfront Park Ice Palace, hailed as one of the best outdoor skating rinks in the nation. Open from October 23, 2013 – March 2, 2014, both seasoned skaters and beginners (and everyone in between) enjoy the friendly atmosphere and urban park ambiance. When it’s time to warm up, downtown cafes and shops are easy to reach.

Back at Silver Star, eight-year-old Malcolm appears especially diminutive in the 6×4-foot goalmouth, poised without pads, his faith entrusted to shinny’s “no lifted shots” rule that I know, from experience, to be more hopeful thinking than skillful restraint. But who I am to crush my son’s dreams of being a hockey goalie on this, one of the best ski days of the year (or so I was told).

Ice Rink Resources

Washington:

Idaho:

British Columbia: