Curling in Northern Michigan: Rock and a Cold Place

Shuffleboard on Ice.  No, it’s not the newest costumed ice show coming to a city near you—it’s the sport of curling reduced to its simplest terms.  Yet the slippery, cold, and seemingly slow sport caught fire at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi; the delicately launched stones and frenetic brush strokes of broom-toting sweepers embody the game’s intricate tactical and athletic features.  Read Lynda Twardowski’s story from Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine’s December 2009 edition on a remote Northern Michigan curling club devoted to the sport. 

I’ve passed the Lewiston Curling Club’s ice rink twice without realizing it. Driving up and down the dark road it’s supposed to sit beside, I squint through the windshield for some sign of what I assume will be a large, round building. Snow flutters in and out of the beams of my headlights, but the world beyond their glow stands still, frozen inside the moonless night as only a small Northern town carved into a vast woods can appear in winter. Peering again at the directions I scrawled on a yellow Post-it, I pull another U-ey, then kick on my high-beams. I spot it, the sign. Across from the flower shop. On a small, nondescript beige box of a building with a semi-truck trailer sticking out one side, there hangs a life-size wood cutout of a lunging man. With one black leg bent tight to his red-sweatered chest, the other leg stretched far behind him, and one arm launching a rock out to the black horizon, there is no mistaking it: he’s a curler.

Whatever that is.

Admit it. You don’t know jack about curling either. You looked quizzically at your TV when it turned up at the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. You snickered when Bob Costas called it a sport. “Isn’t that the thing where they throw that thing down the ice … with brooms and stuff?” you’ve likely asked, if ever the game came up in conversation, which likely, it didn’t. Unless you were at the Olympics. Or in Canada. Or, of course, in Lewiston.

Curling simply isn’t an American sport. Its origins trace back to the 16th-century Scots, who passed the long and dreary winters hurling “channel” stones—rocks worn smooth by moving water—across their frozen lochs and marshes. Scottish immigrants brought the game over to Canada in 1759. Around 1830, curling reached the United States, eventually sprouting small clubs in cold-clime cities like Detroit, New York and Milwaukee. Yet whereas today curling is one of Canada’s top-rated televised sports, in the United States it remains, well, it barely remains. But there are zealots among us.

Consider the late Harold Aarons, Lewiston’s first curling evangelical. An advertising executive transplanted from Detroit, Aarons wanted to teach his new neighbors about his favorite sport. In the winter of ’60 and ’61, he talked a local well driller into helping him lay down an ice sheet and rallied his pals from the Detroit Curling Club to come up and put on an exhibition. Then he began the onerous task of recruiting the locals. It was easier, perhaps, to lay the ice. Recalled Aaron in a 1965 edition of The Curler: “None of them had the slightest inclination of what I was talking about when I first approached them.”

A half-century later, Lewiston is obsessed with Aarons’s beloved sport. Curling leagues compete every night of the week except Friday—men’s, women’s and mixed teams. More than 65 kids play in after-school leagues. As one curler explains it: “We take ’em as soon as they’re out of diapers—we don’t want ’em messing up the ice.” Players from as far away as Boyne and Traverse City make the hours-long haul down the pitted backwoods roads that lead here. Crunching up the snow-crusted steps to the club’s front door, I’m determined to find out why.

The door sticks when I push on it, so I give it a shove with my hip. It flings open. A dozen men in heavy coats, knit hats, baseball caps, calfskin work gloves and what appears to be one orthopedic shoe per pair of feet, stop mid-guffaw and stare at me. Behind them is a glass partition. Behind the glass is the rink: a long, narrow, rectangular space, sided and ceilinged with golden-hued pine planks and floored with a swath of gleaming white ice. I give the men a nervous half wave. “Um, hi. I’m here for the … curling?”

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