Free-skate day brings warmth and fun that seem only possible in the summer

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The subtle but sharp notes of a piano were a beacon in a winter wasteland that was Prince’s Island Park. Once people rounded the corner, they found it — a scene out of a childhood picture book: Free-Skate Day.

Children were swarming the area like busy bees. The shallow water underneath one of the bridges leading to the park had been made into a small skating area.

Parked was a van opened wide with the words, “SKATE SHACK” as two shivering women handed out shiny new skates for rent to kids. Dads’ tightened skates and moms watched with heart-wrenching smiles at the bundled up versions of their children.

My curiosity overwhelmed me and suddenly I needed to know who had caused this? Who had turned one of the coldest days of winter into somewhat of a brief retreat?

Humble meeting

I asked the ladies and they pointed me towards a fellow who could have been mistaken for Santa Claus, wearing a red coat and a white cowboy hat.

But somehow before they pointed him out to me, I knew which one he was. HeSkating-IllustrationinstoryIllustration of a skater enjoying free-skate day.

Illustration by Michelle Vaniersel had that sense of a leader and yet in a way, he was modestly standing, contributing to the scene without demanding attention. He was casually talking to a handful of people around him, occasionally smiling at a kid that hurried by.

I introduced myself and shook his hand, glad that he couldn’t feel my frozen hands through his gloves. Despite the cold stealing our breath, he was happy to talk to me.

“It’s our third year, and it’s been growing over time,” said Paul Denaeghel, president of the Eau Claire Community Association.

“I don’t really know how many people but I usually judge by how much hot chocolate is left. What’s that? We’re out? Well then, there you go. That’s about 200 people.”

Frozen in time

I smiled at the scene in front of me. The frozen floor was covered in people, some gracefully skating in figure eight formations as others looked on longingly from their tushes from the ice.

The sidewalk by the rink held a table with a hot chocolate dispenser and tinfoil wrapped chocolates. Two spherical fireplaces puffed out smoke into the air. No one minded the smoke because it meant there was warmth — a relief from the unyielding assault of winter. The burning wood masked one of the coldest days of the year — -27 C and worse with the wind chill.

A lady, wearing all winter gear imaginable, handed out cups of hot chocolate — enough to warm your hands if you forgot your mittens. After swallowing greedily, you could nestle yourself closer to the fire, reminding yourself not to actually touch it.

I thought about the scene for a while and started to take a closer look at the people around me.

A couple on the ice — the boy tried to pry the girl away from the snowy and safe shore of the rink. Their hands were locked as he pulled her, skating backwards effortlessly as her knees bent in protest.
A couple of small boys raced each other back and forth, dodging even smaller ones that were perhaps bundled so much that the only movements they could muster were the occasional foot wiggle before tumbling to the ice.

Not what I expected

And I remembered the piano music that had called me to this place. It was louder now and slightly muffled by the speakers it poured from, hanging from the bridge. I couldn’t tell you the name of the song but it felt like the soundtrack to lazy Sunday afternoons. I looked at the bigger picture and watched the perfect scene unfold, people swirling around on the ice, creating memories.

I had expected to walk into emptiness when I came to Prince’s Island Park — that everyone would be hidden from the winter. The park would be a darker and colorless version of what I remembered it to be, like a black and white screen. And after an hour in the debilitating cold, I would stumble back into my car, crank the heat and drive far away.

Instead, people were smiling and laughing. Chatter hovered in the air as people talked to perfect strangers.

I didn’t feel cold anymore and as I looked around at the crowd, no one was shivering or shaking. Everyone was making memories.

Winter couldn’t steal their attention or energy anymore because they had come to this place. No one was without a smile. I looked back at the man dressed up as Santa and wondered if he even knew what he had done.

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