Sports

Ice dream shattered

Two racers break away during the Category 5 race that kicked off the Whale of a Crit bike race Sunday at the 34th Whaling Days festival in Old Town Silverdale. - Photo by Jesse Beals
Two racers break away during the Category 5 race that kicked off the Whale of a Crit bike race Sunday at the 34th Whaling Days festival in Old Town Silverdale.
— image credit: Photo by Jesse Beals

Serpentine Fen has been transformed into an outdoor skating paradise, attracting hundreds since its frozen waterways were deemed safe on Sunday.

But by Monday, organizers had to put plans on ice and shut down hockey games and other activities on the estuary of the Serpentine River near King George Highway south of Colebrook Road.

Marty Van der Zalm, one of the co-owners of neighbouring Art Knapp Plantland, says he and others have been ordered off the Fen because a deal he thought he’d struck with the provincial government to provide recreational insurance now seems to be unworkable.

“We were building a curling rink out there and a speed skating oval out there,” he said Monday. “We were getting everything ready. But now it’s all off.”

Van der Zalm had offered to pay the roughly $600 for insurance, but couldn’t because he doesn’t own the Serpentine Wildlife Area – the province does.

After more than two years of talks with government reps, he thought he had persuaded the environment ministry to arrange the insurance.

But just as ice fans were lacing up their skates, he got a letter from the province approving his plans to host public skating on the Fen this winter, but requiring he get insurance – something he maintains is impossible.

Environment ministry officials said anyone can go and skate on the Fen in its natural state and the province’s insurance applies.

But spokesperson Kate Thompson said Van der Zalm’s bigger plans and the possible sale of food and drink triggered the requirement for separate insurance.

“Once you’re promoting or selling stuff down there it crosses the line over into the realm of commercial,” she said Tuesday. “We can’t change government policy and government regulations.”

She said efforts were still under way to help find an insurer.

But Van der Zalm denies money was ever going to change hands.

“We supply hot dogs and coffee and there’s no charge,” he said. “This was just a way to give back to the community,” he said. “But they keep looking at a businessman and saying he must be making money at it somehow.”

For Van der Zalm and his crew of volunteers, it’s a disappointment.

“We called ourselves the Keepers of the Ice,” he said. “We test the ice. We have concrete finishers to smooth the ice when it’s bad. We have snow blowers so when there’s snow we get rid of it. We go around with propane torches and seal up all the cracks in the ice.”

For decades he and others have skated at the Fen on the few days a year it gets cold enough.

“When we were kids we used to come down and skate on every little pond in the fields,” he recalls.

They also skated over other iced-over farm fields, like Fry’s Corner at 176 Street and the Fraser Highway.

But it and most of Surrey’s other low pasture lands wet enough for winter skating have vanished – many replanted as blueberry fields.

“The Fen is the last guaranteed wet spot that’s fairly safe, because it’s not deeper than three feet,” Van der Zalm said.

The deal he thought he had with the province was supposed to mean this year their informal efforts over the years would be legitimate and they could turn their big ice dreams into reality.

Organizers had already set up donated barbecues, generators, bleachers and hockey nets.

They’d arranged music, food and drinks, fire pits and garbage collection.

And – unbelievably – the weather cooperated, offering up a winter wonderland.

“When you get down to that pond with kids on it you get a warm, fuzzy glow inside,” Van der Zalm said.

His vision of a free public winter event may be off, but he doubts skaters will stay away if the cold weather holds.

“They’re not going to stop the people from coming now,” he said. “The genie’s out of the bottle.”

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