At the Schenectady Curling Club, they call him “The Ice Man,” and for Jim Ridenour, it really is a cool job.
For 12 years, Ridenour has flooded, pebbled, nipped and scraped the ice for the game of curling at the clubhouse on Balltown Road.
If you’ve forgotten about curling since last winter’s Olympics in Vancouver, here’s how it goes:
Players, in teams of four, slide polished granite stones weighing about 40 pounds across the ice into a red, white and blue target. “Curling” is the curved path of the stone as it moves along the playing surface, called a sheet, which is 146 to 150 feet long.
Sometimes called “Chess on Ice,” for its strategy and tricky moves, the sport dates to 16th century Scotland. It joined the Olympics in 1998, and besides Europe, Canada and the United States, it’s played in Japan, Korea, China, Australia and New Zealand.
Founded in 1904 in the city’s Stockade district, the Schenectady Curling Club has been on Balltown Road since 1951. Women started joining the club in 1953. Today there are more than 200 members, from age 6 to 85, who slide stones from October to April.
On a recent rainy night, The Gazette went to the club and got the cold facts on ice-making, just after Ridenour finished two hours of work on the four sheets of ice so the Thursday women’s group could play.
A resident of Slingerlands, the 52-year-old Ridenour has traveled to Korea, New Zealand, Canada and many U.S. cities as an ice technician, chief ice maker or crew chief for regional, national and international curling competitions, including five World Curling Championships and the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
A founding member of the Association of Ice Technicians, Ridenour is on the board of managers of the Schenectady Curling Club, after serving two terms as its president.
Q: How is curling ice different from hockey or figure skating ice?
A: For curling ice, you need the sheet, the playing surface, to be quite level. For hockey, it doesn’t need to be level at all. It can be half a foot off from one end of the arena to the other end of the arena. It doesn’t make any difference because it’s such a fast game. I think skating ice might be a little harder; that’s because of the blades.
Q: What’s the temperature on the ice?
A: The air temperature out there is about 40 degrees at chest height. And the temperature of the ice surface today is about 25 degrees.
Q: Why is curling ice bumpy and not smooth?
A: It lifts the rock up. Think of a bar glass that has all those little round things on the bottom of it. If you didn’t have that, it would just be flat. And if you try and slide it on a flat surface, it doesn’t really want to go. If you put these dimples on the bottom, you have less contact and less friction and it’s easier to make it go.
Q: What’s it look like here in the summer, when the ice is gone?
A: You would see the plastic pipes that have the coolant running up and down the sheet. And you would see sand in between the pipes. Not much else.
Q: When did you start making this season’s ice? And how did you do it?
A: We started in the middle of September. We soak the sand. It’s what holds the water, so you are able to freeze the water, to hold it up. It takes a couple of hours. And once it’s saturated, we turn the set point on, the chill point, down below freezing and that freezes like a block. Then we do what we call “flooding.” That involves taking a hose and a piece of plastic pipe. It’s like a little cane. You walk sideways and water comes out the front and runs across the ice. . . . You’re putting out maybe one-sixteenth of an inch of water. It might take six hours to freeze, . . . and then you come back and you do it again and you do it again.
Q: Do you keep the same ice until April?
A: Yes, and we’ll do re-leveling floods several times during the season because all the time the ice is out here, it’s interacting with its environment. It wants to sublimate, to turn into a gas.
Q: Does the weather outside affect the ice indoors?
A: It does, and the humidity affects it even more than the temperature. Every time the conditions change, what’s best for the game changes. It’s a little bit like being a groundskeeper for a big golf course. . . . When we get weather like we are having today, with a lot of rain, the air comes in from outside and it cools down, and all that air wants to condense, and it wants to go down on the top of the ice. And that makes it slow for play. If you know that’s coming, you can plan ahead a little bit for that, to prepare the sheet for the game.
Q: How many hours a week do you work on the ice?
A: There’s a bunch of us that spend a lot of time working on it. I’ll generally come over here after work most every night. Spend four or five hours maybe. We’re all volunteers.
Q: How high-tech is your ice-making system?
A: We’ve got some compressors that have been in there a real long time. They are sort of like old cars. As long as you keep them maintained and serviced, they can go pretty much forever. We’ve upgraded the electrical components. A lot of it is digital, but we still have some controls that are still analog.
Q: What do you do to the ice before a game?
A: One of the things you would do is called pebbling the surface. And what that involves is a backpack. It kind of looks like a pesticide reservoir, but it’s plastic and hollow and holds water. It’s got a tube on it, and a little copper head . . . sort of like your lawn sprinkler. You put it on your back, fill it up with water, and walk from this end of the sheet to that end of the sheet backward for a half a minute or less. And while you are doing this, you are moving your hand back and forth. That makes the pebbles. And it takes a little bit of practice. And after you pebble, you do what is called nip. It’s five feet wide . . . like a razor blade. It just shaves off the top of the pebble. That makes those pebbles have a shape that makes them resistant.
Q: What do you enjoy about making ice?
A: On the technical side, it’s just very compelling; being able to try and work through problems. It’s also very rewarding to have something that’s hands-on.
Q: What’s your day job, the work you get paid for?
A: I’m a research scientist with the state Health Department, and I’m a geologist by trade.