Unless you grew up in or had a career opportunity in the northern climates of our country, you probably won't understand or believe how much we care about winter sports programming in our City of Madison.
For all of you who are working on the Gulf Coast of Florida or in sunny Southern California, please do not e-mail or call us when you read that our overnight temperatures are 20 below zero in January or that we just had 12 inches of snow fall in the past 24 hours. We probably won't be able to take your call.
But we will be outside getting our facilities ready and enjoying the wonderful opportunities that exist for winter sports in our parks.
Breaking the Ice
Like many northern cities, Madison offers a host of winter outdoor recreation opportunities. With our many natural bodies of water, outdoor ice-skating probably attracts the largest number of participants.
The pressure is always on to get the skating areas open as soon as possible... even when the weather is not cooperating. Because we have to deal with snow, the ice has to be thick enough to support snow plowing and snow blowing equipment before we can drive on it.
If we get on too early or discover a soft spot over a natural spring, we can have a piece of equipment and an operator go through the ice. Many safety practices are in place to prevent this from happening, but it is a risk that we always think about. A heavy snowfall before the ice is thick enough also places an insulating layer of snow over the ice and keeps it from freezing thicker, which adds to our challenges.
We take many measurements of the thickness of the ice. This is done by drilling a lot of small holes through the ice and measuring the thickness.
We keep track of how the rink is freezing. The same body of water may have four inches of ice in one area and only one or two inches of ice in an adjoining area. This is due to springs and water currents under the ice.
Thickness is not the only measurement, however. Dark gray ice is usually much stronger than the same thickness of milky white ice, which is more common in the late part of the season. Even after the rinks are open for the season, we re-check ice thickness whenever we have a change in weather conditions.
We never assign a person to be working on the ice alone. Our standard practice is always to have another person available in case of an emergency such as a simple fall or major situation such as a vehicle going through the ice. Falls are common even with safety equipment attached to boots, but going through the ice is fortunately not very common.
Many of our skating areas are designed over shallow water. Simple rescue equipment is available at every location with deep water, and telephone or radio contact is available at every location.
We will go on the ice with small equipment with four good inches of ice. We need at least six inches of good ice before pick-up truck sized equipment is allowed on the ice.
Whenever possible, we like to have the doors off the equipment on the ice or, at a minimum, all the windows open on the ice equipment. Some equipment is designed with an escape route through the roof.
Because ice-skating draws such large crowds, separate areas have to be maintained for recreational skating, hockey and speed skating. These user conflicts are similar to those all of us encounter in any shared area.
Because of the heavy use and the lack of true programming, we have taken the course of action that separates the three major user groups by space.
Special areas are provided for hockey (with boards) away from the areas designated for family use. The speed skating area is separate from the general skating areas. All areas are lighted for evening use.
Madison is fortunate in being able to provide rental ice skates at many locations for those people who have not invested in skates or for the many school or civic groups that plan outings at our parks.
Cross-country skiing is also very popular here. We have had two winters with less than normal snow fall, so when any snow is on the ground, we see lots of people.
User fees are required at two of our prime areas. These areas receive the greatest amount of trail grooming attention. Our crews maintain over 33 kilometers of cross county ski trails of which 5k are lighted.
There are two distinct user groups for XC skiing and our maintenance program has to accommodate both of them, so we are fortunate that our city is able to offer lighted trails at Elver Park.
Elver Park is a beautiful park of 235 acres shaped by glaciers, so it is heavily wooded and very hilly. Elver Park is a perfect location for both recreational skiing and serious training for many of the competitive events in Wisconsin.
Through a partnership with our local XC ski organization, many family, youth and adult racing events are scheduled at Elver Park. This partnership has also greatly expanded our fleet of snow grooming equipment and this organization took the lead in raising funds for trail lighting. We believe that we are only one of two lighted trail locations in the southern half of our state.
People come from as far away as Chicago to train at Elver Park in the evening. User fees, along with equipment rentals and food and beverage sales, cover a large part of our operating expenses.
The shelter building at Elver Park is used for picnics and summer-programmed day camping during the summer months, but during winter sports we have a concession area and equipment rental area (skis and skates), restrooms and a large warming area. It is an enjoyable place to be for skaters, XC skiers and sledders, and is a year-round building that is well designed.
Along with our winter sports operations, our park crews do a lot of other winter work such as bike path snow and ice maintenance. And yes, I did say bike path snow and ice maintenance.
With 40,000 college students here and a large number of year-round bike commuters who use their bikes to get to work in our downtown area, there is an expectation that all of our paved bike trails be maintained in top conditions regardless of the winter weather conditions. This includes 4 a.m. plowing and salting operations so that the trails are safe for the morning "rush hour" and then keeping the routes in top shape through late evenings. Sometimes, our bike paths are in better shape than the city streets, which gets some notice from the automobile drivers!
It is amazing to see significant numbers of riders out on very cold and windy days. A lot must have to do with better clothing or the high cost of parking in our downtown!
Our biggest problem relates to all the city streets that our trails cross and all the snow and slush pushed off the streets onto the curb cuts that connect the trails with the street for crossing without going down a curb.
The street snow and slush mean that we have to keep going back over out trail routes to keep them open and to avoid having a frozen row of snow at our path openings.
It's not just Parks that does trail snow removal. Our Engineering and Streets Divisons also do some bike routes, depending on which agency is the closest, and Parks also does some street routes because we are closer.
The team meets every fall to review the plowing assignments and make adjustments so that the division that is the closest gets the right routes. It will all be on GIS after this winter, and will include sidewalks on bridges, pedestrian ways in neighborhoods, and so on.
Active winter sports are a way of life for many of us in this climate. Even new people to Madison quickly join in the fun. A typical winter day here offers clear blue skies, tolerable air temperatures, crisp fresh air and bright sunshine to pull you outdoors.
Nothing is more special than being the first person out to snowshoe though a fresh sparkling snow fall in the woods. Madison parks make sure to offer four seasons of outdoor fun!
Jim Morgan is Madison's superintendent of parks.