When the mercury drops to zero and below, most sensible people head to warm hearths indoors, but one Soldotna resident does just the opposite.
"Zero is a nice temperature for what I do," said Jeff Stout, whose pickup truck license plate tells his story.
"Ice 4U," the plate proudly proclaims.
That's because Stout, who works construction through the other three seasons, lovingly labors to put down a smooth sheet of ice on outdoor skating rinks in the central Kenai Peninsula every winter.
Anyone who thinks the task means simply flooding the rinks and letting Mother Nature do the rest, is quickly disavowed of their belief after talking to Stout about the work he takes so seriously.
When winter temperatures fall and consistently remain below freezing, Stout begins by flooding the rinks at Kenai Central, Soldotna and Skyview high schools and at Soldotna Elementary School. (He does not maintain the ice at the Kenai city rink near the Challenger Learning Center or at the rinks in Nikiski or Sterling Elementary School.)
"I build up layers of ice, trying to get at least two inches over the highest spot in the rink," Stout said.
Because the outdoor rinks are unevenly paved, the thickness of ice in some lower spots will eventually reach as much as eight inches to get that minimum two-inch coverage everywhere.
Stout shovels fresh snow from the rink at Skyview before he hot-mopped the ice earlier this month.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"If I have two inches, I can maintain the ice if we do get some melting," Stout said.
At all the rinks except Kenai, water spigots are available for flooding, but at Kenai Central, Stout depends on the donated resources of the Kenai Fire Department.
"They donate the men and a fire truck to bring water," he said.
The firefighters bring 10 fire-truck loads of water for a total of 30,000 gallons to fill the rink.
Once the layers of ice are built up, Stout, who works on a three-year contract arrangement with the Kenai Peninsula Borough, goes on an ice-maintenance schedule.
Because area hockey players' and other ice skaters' blades chew up the ice, Stout needs to periodically resurface the ice.
To do so, he has a four-wheel-drive tractor with a blade attachment that shaves the ice, removing bumps, chunks and frost from the surface.
The razor-sharp blade, which is pulled behind the tractor on a three-point hitch, is actually a donated, used Zamboni blade from the Soldotna Sports Center.
Stout's Suburban spends its new life going in circles in a slow idle.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
After repeated sharpening, the blade used by the sports center machine to groom the indoor rink becomes too narrow and unusable.
Stout has designed his grooming equipment to be closer to the ice surface so it can use the narrower blades.
The inventive Stout, who says he likes to do "mechanical tinkering" in the shop of CIC Construc-tion where he works as a heavy equipment operator in warmer seasons, also has designed and built his own Zamboni to help in maintaining the outdoor ice rinks.
Formerly a 1984 Chevy Sub-urban, Stout's Zamboni is an odd-looking, gray, boxlike contraption that at once resembles a World War II Normandy Beach landing craft and some sort of Cook Inlet amphibious fishing trawler.
To create it, first, Stout cut off the body of the Suburban from the firewall back.
"I wanted it short for the tight turns of the rink, so I cut four feet out of the middle of the frame rails," he said.
Then he mounted a 5-foot long, 300-gallon tank where the driver's seat was, parallel with the frame rails and built a cab for the operator behind the tank.
Stout's Zam is bedecked in battleship gray-painted plywood, and the little cab at the back sticks up like the pilot house of a fishing boat.
Stout summarizes one of his vocations with the license plate on the truck he uses to pull his equipment.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The cab is heated and contains a driver's seat and steering wheel as well as mechanical levers for raising and lowering the ice-grooming equipment at the rear of the vehicle.
On its hood, in white letters, are the words "Ice Man."
Although it still operates with the original 350 cubic-inch, V-8 Chevy engine, the Zam now only idles around the rink at a very low speed.
"I've had a lot of people ask, 'What is that thing and what do you do with it?'" Stout said.
Using the schools' boilers, Stout fills the Zamboni's large tank with hot water, which flows through a perforated pipe at the back of the machine as it travels around the rink, putting down an 1/8-inch thick film of water.
"If I used cold water, it would peel right off when it was hit by a skate," Stout said.
An 8-inch wide band of terry cloth, attached behind the perforated pipe, follows the hot water, mopping the ice to a mirror-like smoothness.
Each rink is on a twice-a-week hot mopping schedule. Stout returns between scheduled moppings if it snows more than four inches.
Troy Glidden works on his shooting skills several winters ago at the rink next to Kenai High School. The outdoor rinks that Stout maintains are used at all hours of the day and often late into the night.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
If the mercury drops below minus 10 degrees, Stout can't hot mop. The water freezes almost instantly when it comes out of the tank and the terry cloth mop itself freezes solid.
When Stout first began making and grooming the ice for the borough eight years ago, he used a pickup truck with a tank mounted on back for the hot water, but by not having a machine dedicated to skating rink use, the vehicle would bring road salt and sand onto the ice making it more difficult to create a clean skating surface.
"About the same time I got the idea for the Zamboni, the borough advertised for people to bid on the work," Stout said.
Having played hockey for five years in the sports center's Rusty Blades coed adult league, Stout had an interest in skating and knew something about good ice conditions.
In the first year after winning the borough bid, he groomed the rinks with the pickup truck and tank method, and quickly realized the need to build the Zamboni to make the job easier and to do a better job with the ice.
By his second year, the odd-looking, homemade Zam was on the job.
Compared to the $30,000 or $40,000 he thinks an actual Zamboni would cost, Stout's was a bargain.
"I paid $1,100 for the Suburban and I have about $3,000 to $3,500 in it in materials," he said.
Furthermore, an actual Zamboni wouldn't work in the cold temperatures outdoors.
"I don't have all that plumbing that would freeze up," he said.
Stout's wife, Roylene, helps with the Ice Man's bookkeeping, and has helped with hoses during the flooding operation. Other than that, it's a one-person job.
The couple's three children, Jeff Jr., 27, Jeremy, 25, and Jennifer, 19, were not hockey players growing up, though they did skate recreationally.
The elder Stout is a hockey fan, who says he watches most of the high school games on the peninsula and travels to Anchorage to watch the professional Aces as well as University of Alaska Anchorage action.
Although he no longer plays hockey in the area league, Stout occasionally puts on a pair of skates to try out the ice.
"I might beat the puck around a bit, too," he said.
At present, he has more than enough work maintaining the ice at the four peninsula outdoor rinks.
"If we get too much snow, it's hard to maintain," he said.
Stout said he plans to continue grooming area ice "until they don't want me to."
"I enjoy it. It's too much fun," he said.
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