You’re listening to Parks & Landmarks, an exploration of the underrated, outdoors. I’m Sean Bull.
There are few activities more iconic to a northern winter than ice skating. The concept of strapping blades to one’s feet, and gliding over a frozen pond is simple, but it has endured for centuries. Skiing and sledding have had a similar cultural longevity, but they are inherently limited to places which have significant hills. Skating is for everyone; it only takes a low-lying place, water, and the right weather.
Of course, the right weather is never guaranteed. This episode will first air in January of 2023. Looking out my window, I see an expanse of brownish green grass. At the edge of the street, a thin strip of snow remains, where it once was piled high by plows. People still seem to be ice fishing, but I can’t say I trust the condition of any outdoor rink.
Still, in a Wisconsin winter, outdoor skating is the only way to go. Indoor ice arenas abound here, but their reliability makes them a bit boring. At this point, we’ve had weeks of above-freezing high temperatures, but I’m still hoping the weather will turn, and we’ll be able to get out on the ice again. Clearly, I’m not the only one holding on to hope, as the Madison Parks Department has weeks of skating activities set on their calendar. So, whether the rinks are currently ready or not, here’s your guide to skating in Madison Parks.
The Madison Parks Department lists nineteen distinct bodies of ice on the skating page of their website. Some of these are contained within the same park: for instance, Vilas Park has a natural frozen lagoon, a less natural ice rink, and a dedicated hockey rink, all physically near to each other, but listed separately. This allows the parks department to close individual rinks when unsafe, without having to close all the skating at a park. I’m going to mention this a lot, but I’ll link the Ice Skating page of the Madison Parks website in the online version of this article.
The flagship skating parks of the Madison system are Tenney, Vilas, and Elver. When the ice is good, these three parks offer staffed warming houses, complete with restrooms, concessions, and most importantly, skate rentals. They also offer room to spread out. Tenney is the best at this, depending on the conditions the skateable area of its lagoon can be huge. But each offers at least an additional rink for pickup hockey games, and other benefits as well. Tenney may have the biggest ice surface, but Elver has all kinds of winter fun. If you get bored skating there, you’re right underneath Madison’s biggest sledding hill, complete with artificially made snow, and it’s also a popular destination for cross country skiing. Vilas Park isn’t as spacious as either, but it might have the best ambience out of the three. Tenney and Elver are right by busy roads, but Vilas only borders a quiet neighborhood, and Lake Wingra.
If you have to rent skates, those are your best options. If you’re not so restricted, there are ten other neighborhood parks that, in theory, have their own rinks to enjoy. This has not been a good year to research and test skating rinks, but I have been able to get out and enjoy a few. I’m particularly a fan of how parks like Westmoreland and Hillington Green light their ice at night. Many parks use big lights on a pole. This style of light works just as well on ice as it does a stadium, or parking lot, but it’s kind of clinical, if I’m being picky. Ice skating is supposed to be romantic, not just as a popular activity for dates, but in a more general, poetic sense. So even a little effort to class up the lighting goes a long way. Some parks have taken to using strands of little warm white lights, which in my opinion is way better for ambience on ice.
At the time of this broadcast, only one location, the ice rink at Vilas Park, is currently marked as open for skating. Still, conditions change, so any of the other rinks could, theoretically, be usable within a few days. The following is, in order, a list of free events at Madison’s skating rinks over the next two months:
This Friday, January 13th, marks the first in a series entitled “Groove and Glide.” Every Friday evening for the next five weeks, a different park will come alive with music and lights. People will dance, play games, and make the most of this year’s so far subpar supply of ice. The first “Groove and Glide” is supposed to take place at Elver Park, which at the moment is not open for skating. Still, it’s supposed to cool off a bit over the next couple days, and Elver has been open more than most this year. The best way to stay informed is to check the Madison Parks Twitter, and their ice skating page, which I will link here in the online version of this article.
This Saturday, from 4 to 7:30pm, Tenney Park is hosting Skate Cinema! The frozen lagoon will be operating its normal skating, rentals and concessions, but at 5:30 the lights will dim, and attendees will be treated to a screening of 2002’s Disney’s Snow Dogs. I’ve never seen the movie, but the tagline listed online simply says: “When a Miami dentist inherits a team of sled dogs, he’s got to learn the trade or lose his pack to a crusty mountain man.” So it’s the classic hero’s journey, a tale as old as time, really. Those who attend can either watch from atop their skates, or bring a lawn chair and get a more stationary view. Those choosing not to skate can keep themselves warm around a provided bonfire, or with a cup of available coffee. I’m not sure whether the lagoon will be ready by Saturday, but I’ll link the relevant sites to check online, at WORTFM.org
The next event has already been rescheduled once, so we’re now hoping the ice will be ready by Tuesday, January 17th. At 6pm the Badger Women’s hockey team will be at Vilas Park, skating for ninety minutes with their community and fans. The warming shelter will be open, renting skates and selling concessions. The event is free, and this is the first time it’s been held since before the coronavirus pandemic.
Assuming nothing else gets rescheduled, the last skating events on the calendar are four more Groove and Glides. These take place every Friday from 6 to 8, and will occur in order at Rennebohm, Vilas, Westmorland and Olbrich parks.
If you’d like to suggest a topic for Parks and Landmarks to cover, please send it my way, at email@example.com. Tell me about your favorite underrated spot outdoors, or whatever you feel is related. This segment’s title is intentionally broad, so just go for it. I’d love to hear from you guys. Again, that’s s-e-a-n dot b-u-l-l at w-o-r-t-f-m dot org. For WORT News, I’m Sean Bull.