In the mountains west of Denver, a beloved ice skating tradition is changing | Way of life

Evergreen • Anyone who has lived here long enough has fond memories of the lake.

Sweet, like the drink John Ellis remembers. It was concocted in the old warming cabin, that log cabin still standing along the freezing shores for an ice-skating tradition dating back to 1928, when the dam was completed.

“Like Dr Pepper, but you did it yourself,” says Ellis, the white-bearded Santa Claus who was born in a barn around those hills west of Denver in 1947. “Coke and cherry and 7 Up, and we mixed them all together.”

Pam Lindquist remembers this warm cabin. “Cigarette smoke and the smell of wet woolen socks,” she says.

She remembers those nights after school, skating until someone’s parents arrived to pick her up. Her parents were skating in front of her, among neighbors in woolen ties and skirts. There was also fishing.

“You look out there now, and you see ice fishermen everywhere,” Ellis says. “It’s another world.”

Anglers, of course, share the 55-acre Evergreen Lake with several other souvenir hunters in this idyllic valley.

Now, rather than the cabin, the meeting place is a building large enough for weddings and a rental shop. Now, it’s not uncommon for a few thousand people to skate on the lake on busy days, managers say. Denver’s locals and growing masses converge on what is billed as the largest maintained outdoor skating rink in North America.

Heart Cameron grooms from the driver’s seat of a Zamboni he has fitted with a Volkswagen engine.

“It’s as real as ice skating, I think,” Cameron says. “You have the mountains, the trees. It’s so classic, romantic. It’s like before, the real deal.

Nostalgic for some. For others, it’s too representative of the changing recreational landscape of Colorado.

The lake is still the “centerpiece” of the town, says Kendra Head, who grew up skating here and now works for Evergreen Park and Recreation District. It’s still the scene of “salty dogs,” as former hockey players are called, battling it out before a celebratory beer. Whiskey and bacon accompanied bicycle races on ice.

But the lake isn’t quite what it used to be, Head said. Parking is not always easy. As the lots fill up, shuttles transport visitors off-site.

“It’s kind of heartbreaking in a way, because we’ve lost that small-town feel,” Head says. “Even though (the city) needs to make money, it also kind of destroys that small-town feel.”

But the pride of the landmark remains. Look no further than Cameron, the dreadlocked man with native blood and a name given to him in a sweat lodge. He considers it an honor to tend to the “soul” of the city — which is why he’s done it for almost 21 years.

“It’s a big thing for us,” Cameron said.

By us, he means his few teammates heading out onto the frozen lake in the middle of the night. They take advantage of freezing temperatures and spray water under the stars, filling cracks and crevices and strengthening the surface. (To hold the Zamboni, at least 16 inches of ice is best.)

“Twenty degrees a day, they’ll probably be in T-shirts, because they’re so used to cold, cold, cold,” Cameron says.

In recent winters, they have wished for colder.

When Cameron started two decades ago, he expected the lake to start freezing in late October. Now he waits until later in November. While the old hope was to open the ice for skating in mid-December, the hope is looking more and more like New Year’s Eve. This was the case this season.

In a first, Cameron saw portions of ice melt in December, rather than constantly freezing. This was due to the incessant heat and sun. It’s a perilous sight, considering a not-so-distant tragedy. In 2015, a driver handling the ice fell and died.

“I hate to say it,” says Jarred Lilyhorn, a park district supervisor, “but I think we might not have an ice skating season here. I don’t know when, but I think over time, if we can’t deal with climate change, we won’t have a skating season here.

In Lindquist’s childhood memories, skating seasons were much longer. Now the winters are warmer, the summers hotter – partly why the 4th of July fireworks no longer happen at the lake, due to the risk of fire. The other reason this tradition ended was because of the crowds. The traffic was such that the municipal authorities planned disasters in the event of an emergency.

But Lindquist is happy to greet everyone. She greets them at the lake house, her post with the park district.

“It’s actually the people’s lake,” she says. “We know that when people come here, their lives benefit because of what’s here.”

In a lake this size, there’s room for everyone, says Ellis. It’s not the same, but he still finds some of the old joy in his memories. Always finds inspiration in the views and the sunrises and sunsets.

“You can’t be too wrong,” he says.

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