MERRICKVILLE – More lockdowns and more restrictions are leading to an increased interest in outdoor activities to alleviate social isolation. So when Merrickville Mayor Doug Struthers was quoted just before Christmas as saying the municipal outdoor rink wouldn't be opening this year, it prompted a group of resident front-line workers to take matters into their own hands.
"The concern I had was that the week the mayor said those words I saw a group of children skating at the bottom of the locks in Merrickville, three feet from open water," said Eddie Yomans, OPP officer and Merrickville resident,
He's not alone. Katie Dickie, another resident, mother, and civilian with the OPP, has also seen children skating on puddles in the street and at the edge of the river.
Dickie's concern is not only safety, it's also that the mayor's comments send the wrong message when the health unit is encouraging outdoor recreation during lockdowns for physical and mental health reasons.
At the same time, the comments were out of step with what neighbouring municipalities were actually doing at the time.
"North Grenville has two outdoor rinks operating and both opened up about the third week of December. They are not staffed, the operation of both facilities is handled by volunteers," said Mark Guy, director of parks, recreation and culture with North Grenville.
In North Augusta, recreation coordinator Mattijs van der Veen says they opened their outdoor rinks in early January, and always intended to open them, but were delayed by the weather and logistics.
According to Struthers the Merrickville rink didn't open for a couple of reasons.
"The municipality's 'rink attendant' did not renew his contract this year and finding a replacement was challenging. The weather wasn't cooperating, and we had to research and put protocols in place to ensure that we opened the rink safely," said Struthers.
It's not clear why the municipality couldn't hire a new rink attendant right away, except as Struthers says" "I think circumstances overcame the posting."
According to Struthers the weather was a big factor, because he says it's harder to build an ice surface on concrete than on grass or plastic sheeting as other municipalities are doing.
"They said there wasn't good enough weather to create an ice surface. I argued with them because I have a rink at my house, and I told them I could get ice on that surface in one day," said Mike Seeley, a correctional officer, long-time resident and former volunteer firefighter.
Seeley spent many of his childhood winters helping his father and grandfather flood and maintain the Merrickville outdoor rinks since the late 1960s.
On Saturday, Jan. 9, volunteers showed up at the rink around noon, and Seeley and Troy Murphy, another resident, stayed there overnight, leaving at 7 a.m. on Sunday after successfully laying down a useable ice surface that kids were skating on later that day.
"If I had started earlier, like in December, I would have been able to get six or seven inches of ice down and then it would have been easier to maintain in this changeable weather," said Seeley.
Once the municipality became aware of the community's desire to open the rink, and volunteers came forward to build and maintain the ice surface, staff started working with them, according to Struthers.
"In the end it is a positive outcome with volunteers stepping up when the municipality was facing challenges," said Struthers. "With the rink now open, thanks to our volunteers it's another recreation asset available to our residents to safely exercise during the pandemic lockdown."
Warm weather last week saw the rink closed again, but over this past weekend, with cooler temperatures in the forecast, volunteers were out clearing and prepping the surface for flooding again on Sunday.
The Merrickville rink has a long community history.
In the late 50s and early 60s the rink was located on what is now a parking lot at the edge of the Parks Canada Park. In the mid to late 60s the Merrickville Legion donated the land for the new rink and firehall to the municipality.
"Then in the late 70s, I was on the fire department, and we revamped the rink, and I got sponsors for the rink boards," said longtime resident Lee Horning.
A lack of maintenance saw the surface and boards deteriorate and in the late 80s the rink was temporarily moved onto the ball diamond, where it stayed for two years, until the firefighters rebuilt the rink in its present location across from the Community Centre parking lot.
"I'm sad at how the place has been let go. It's a mess now, the concrete is cracked and there are tree saplings growing on the inside of the boards," said Horning.
"To not maintain the rink to the standard it was built is just disrespectful to the volunteers who put in hundreds of hours to build and maintain it," said Seeley.
The real impetus for the volunteers, many of whom have school-age children, was both the need for out-door recreation but more importantly concern over safety in a community with a river running through it.
"We were late getting out of the gate, and it took the community to let the municipality know how much they valued the rink. An incredible group of volunteers stepped in and got the job done," said Coun. Bob Foster.
Heddy Sorour, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brockville Recorder and Times