A builder by trade, Matt Slater knows how projects take on lives of their own. Even if you've done something similar before, a single change - increasing the square footage, for example - can yield a domino effect that takes you from harmless hobby to utter inanity in just a few short steps.
And so it was, a few days before Christmas, that Slater's wife, Dana, went looking for her blow-dryer and found her husband and three sons at the edge of their property in Baltimore County, using it to heat tape to hold together large sheets of plastic that would line the bottom of their homemade ice-skating rink, a project whose life span is three, maybe four weeks, at the most.
Such rinks are a tradition in the colder winter climes where Slater, 48, grew up. In Vermont during his youth, all he needed to do was take a hose and flood the back yard and he could skate all winter. Spray the hill, and it became a thrill ride worthy of a Disneyland E-ticket. "Nothing goes as fast as a kid on a cardboard box on a frozen hill," Slater said.
But Slater and his family have made Maryland their home, and winters here usually are too mild to sustain an outdoor rink, even one lined with plastic building material and framed with plywood. The Slater sons - Sam, 14, Jake, 13, and Ian, 9 - learned to skate on indoor rinks. They can remember only a handful of times they skated with the sky overhead, and those were usually on mushy chemical rinks.
Last year, however, with Sam on the hockey team at St. Paul's School, they decided an ice rink was a worthwhile do-it-yourself project. "Skating is part of this family," Sam said. If you're a Slater, you skate. Even if you're not a Slater, they might make you skate, assuming your feet fit one of the extra pairs they have squirreled away.
They made mistakes, of course, the first time around. Mistakes are part of the process. They didn't realize that the grade in their meadow north of Greenspring Valley sloped off so sharply that the rink's depth ranged from 3 to 13 inches. It took forever for the deep end to freeze.
So this winter, they moved the site 50 yards and brought in a backhoe to ensure a level bottom. "I'm a builder, so I have a few of those things," Slater said. They increased the rink's size to 32 feet by 70 feet, almost doubling it. Again, not a big deal, Slater said.
But the rink was now so large that no single sheet of plastic could cover the bottom, so they bought special tape over the Internet. When the tape failed to hold, despite the repeated ministrations of the hair dryer, Slater called a Pennsylvania roofing company and ordered white rubber. The liner has to be light, he said, because a dark lining would absorb the sun's light and melt the rink within hours. They can't paint hockey lines on the ice for the same reason.
Then there was the complicated process of filling the rink. Filling a rink is a delicate process. Water must be added slowly and evenly if the finished rink is to have a smooth surface. Furthermore, the Slaters are on a well system, and can run the water for no more than an hour. Slater calculated that it took 42 standard trash cans full of water for every inch of ice. At one point, he drove across town to his warehouse, which isn't on a well, and ferried back gallons of water.
That's when he found out that if you put too much water in at once, the ice that's already formed floats to the top, like an iceberg.
Slater balked at putting a price on his homemade ice rink, noting that the rubber was the only expensive item, and it should be a one-time purchase. This isn't the first time, however, that he has called on that Pennsylvania roofing company for one of his family projects. During the past 15 years, Slater has built a series of ever-more ambitious water slides, culminating this summer in an elaborate structure that passing motorists have compared to the Great Wall of China.
The Slaters, it turns out, believe in keeping their children busy. "When you have three boys, everything is high-energy and action-oriented," Slater said. They're strict about television, which is prohibited Monday through Thursday and administered in one-hour doses throughout the weekend.
But if you're going to limit television, the Slaters reason, you'd better give your children some alternatives - water slides, ice rinks, a Foosball table. When all else fails, Dana Slater said dryly, "We let them beat up on one another."
For now, however, they have a rink - a boardless one, with only a narrow lip to stop hockey pucks, because the noise of pucks hitting the boards might bother their neighbors. Unfortunately, this means that pucks often sail off into the night and are not seen again until the spring thaw. Last year, they lost 22 pucks, Sam calculated. If the cold weather holds, they could lose more this year.
Why work for days for such fleeting pleasure?
"We just wanted to have fun," Ian said patiently, but it was clear he thought the answer was self-evident - as clear as ice, as a matter of fact.