Curling in Northern Michigan: Rock and a Cold Place

The best part about curling? You don’t need to know jack about curling. Knowing, strategizing, guiding, instructing—that’s the skip’s job. Essentially the team captain, the skip tells the rest of his team what to do. Generally, he’s the most skilled and experienced player. He determines which of the opposing team’s rocks to nudge out of the way and taps the ice with his broom to show his thrower where to direct the line of delivery. When his two sweeps run alongside the moving rock, feverishly swiping their brooms back and forth across the ice in its path, maximizing the distance the rock moves, the skip directs where, when and how hard and fast the sweepers sweep.

Important as a skip is to his team, no one is more important than he who tends the ice. For the last 35 years at the Lewiston Curling Club, that’s been Randy Pyle. He semi-retired three years ago, and has been schooling Walt Jauss and Jerry Licht on ice-making’s finer points ever since. On the morning of the club’s biggest competition of the year, the International Bonspiel, I arrive to find Walt pushing what looks like a supersized, electric lawnmower across the ice while Randy looks on. A frosty yellowish-gray pile of dirty ice accumulates in front of the scraper’s four-foot-wide razor blade; a pale, slick path of ice is revealed in its wake.

As Walt circles, Randy inspects a small hole in the ice they’d filled a few days before. He presses it with the toe of his tan workboot, harumphs as it crackles, then heads into a small room off the side of the rink. I follow. Gauges, tubing and mysterious humming machines are nestled inside the tidy space. He taps his hand atop one and begins. “When you flood the rink before the start of the season,” he says, “You put on only 1/16 of an inch at a time.” He pinches his thumb and forefinger almost together to demonstrate. “You use only hot water—109 to 112 degrees is best—less oxygen in it. You want de-ionized water. It makes drier ice. Well water has lime, minerals that rise to the top and give the ice a slippery surface,” he says with obvious distaste. For curling purposes, a pebbled ice surface is the goal, which allows the rock to glide more easily.

We walk back out to the ice, and Randy’s eye veers immediately to Walt. Randy waves his arms frantically. “Walt, Walt!,” he yells over the white-noise din of the scraping. “You just went down there!”

Walt stops, tugging at his ballcap as he looks around. “No,” he says, “I went … oh, shit.” He readjusts the scraper and walks on. In total, Walt will scrape the entire rink three times—nearly a mile of walking. Afterward, Randy sweeps up leftover ice shavings with a wide yarn-headed mop, then begins the most exacting part of the process: sprinkling hot water droplets on the ice’s surface. He carries the sprinkling can in one arm, pressed against his chest and shoulder like a baby. A small hose extends from its bottom. At the hose’s end is a brass snake head–shaped nozzle dotted with tiny holes. Randy swings his arm exactly parallel with the ice, back and forth in a practiced rhythm as he walks backward, sprinkling water droplets 8 feet across on either side of him, at an optimal goal of five droplets per square inch.

Randy bends over and swipes a finger across the ice. When he raises it up to my eye, I see a microscopic speck of black on its tip. “Maybe dirt from a shoe,” he mutters, wiping the speck on his jeans. He raises his eyebrows at me. “One of those’ll stop a rock,” he says gravely.

We leave Walt, by now red-faced and sweating, to do the final passes over the ice with a 2-by-4-foot box frame whose open center is filled with rocks. Their weight and motion will scrape off the smooth, round head of the instantly frozen droplets Randy sprinkled, leaving each ragged and exactly the same height, which creates the ideal curling surface.

Back in the viewing area, more than a dozen guys and several women are getting ready for the tournament. A few pull on curling shoes and an extra layer of pants in the cavernous semi-truck trailer–turned-locker room whose open end is backed up to the viewing area. One woman is arranging chairs before the windows overlooking the rink; somebody tells me the window sills were trimmed out to the exact width of a beer can. Nearby, two 24-packs of beer attest to the sills’ usefulness.

As player Corey Crowell slips down to the clubhouse—the low-lit bar-style nook in the basement that Aarons reportedly dug by hand—I glimpse a jug of Popov in his hand.  A guy in a thick jacket leans in and says, “The lore about drinking and curling? A myth.” Then he smiles and offers me a can of beer. It’s not yet noon, but I crack it open and lean back in my chair to watch the day’s first teams fan out on the ice.It’s great being in the club—hanging with the players, watching the game, sipping a beer, marveling at the skill on the ice. I really have only one complaint. I’d rather be curling.

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