The Columbia Association's ice rink in the Oakland Mills Village Center smells like popcorn and wet wool on a recent Saturday.
In the rink, pop songs play as skaters of varying ages and abilities glide along. Some confidently weave between the slower skaters, while others, ankles wobbly, lean on blue metal frames for support. Some wear shorts and T-shirts, others are bundled in winter jackets, hats and scarves.
"It's just a fun afternoon," said Julia Hoover of Ellicott City, visiting with Nadia Hansel and five children younger than 8 between them.
Since it was built more than 40 years ago, the Columbia Association's ice rink has been a popular weekend destination for just-for-fun skaters.
It is also where local ice hockey teams practice and play, where figure skaters perfect their jumps and spins, where the Columbia Figure Skating Club performs "The Nutcracker on Ice" each winter, where birthday parties are held, and where children learn to ice skate.
Rachelle Weisberg has worked at the rink for 11 years, since the days when her own children skated there, and has been general manager for five years. She started out volunteering to open the rink for figure-skaters at 5:30 in the morning, and she's been involved with the rink ever since.
But she's not a skater herself, she said with a laugh. In 1997, she took a lesson and promptly fell and broke her leg. That was the end of that.
As she chatted about the rink in her small office just past the admission desk, the phone rang constantly. "The Nutcracker" was scheduled for that night, and people were calling to ask if any tickets were available. The answer was no, all 1,600 tickets, 400 for each of four shows, had been sold, she said.
Few changes have been made to the rink over its four decades, Weisberg said, though in the past two years the locker rooms were reconfigured and the small pro shop was removed. The space is now occupied by a room that can be used for parties, she said. The equipment rental window has not been moved.
"It's very quaint," Weisberg said.
The rink, open from the middle of August to early June, is heavily used. On a typical weekday, figure-skaters arrive as early as 5:45 a.m. to practice. The rink is then smoothed with a Zamboni before the public skating session, which is noon to 2 p.m. on Monday through Thursday.
By around 3 p.m., the ice hockey teams are filing in to practice. The rink is home to the Howard Huskies, as well as teams from most county high schools. Then, between 4:30 and 6 p.m., Learn to Skate sessions are offered. In the evenings, a men's league might play, said Weisberg, or the rink might be rented for a private party.
"We typically are here until 11:30 p.m.," she said.
The open skate sessions on Friday nights, with a DJ, are particularly popular with teens, she said. There are also pick-up hockey games, and "stick and puck" sessions, when hockey players can practice. During school holidays, more free skate sessions are added.
"I think we serve the community well, given the facility we have," Weisberg said. "We try to maximize the time and the space we have."
The reason it's not open year-around, she explained, is because the ice has to be defrosted each summer to prevent the concrete beneath it from buckling with permafrost.
On a bench outside the rink, Ashley Maxwell, 20, was taking a breather with her 6-year-old sister, Isabel.
"It's her first time," the older sibling said, adding, "She's getting the hang of it."
By the snack bar, three pony-tailed 14-year-olds were fueling up on noodles and drinks. Julie Bonz, Belle Nelson and Blair Arriola are all freshmen at Century High School in Sykesville. The three enjoy roller skating, so decided to give ice skating a try.
"We looked it up and it was nice that they offered public skating," said Belle, whose mother, Kelli Nelson, drove the girls to the rink.
"I love the music," said Blair. As they were finishing their snack, Kelli Nelson walked over. There were only a few minutes left in the session.
Did the girls want to skate some more, or call it a day?
Skate, they said, and they stood up and began walking back to the rink to enjoy their afternoon of ice skating as long as they could.
Here are the remaining public sessions during the holidays: Dec. 27 — noon to 2 p.m.; Dec. 28 — noon to 2 p.m., 8 to 10 p.m.; Dec. 29 — 2 to 4 p.m.; Dec. 30 — noon to 2 p.m., 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.; Dec. 31 — noon to 2 p.m.; Jan. 1 — noon to 2 p.m., 4 to 6 p.m. For more information, call 410-730-0322.