The official start of winter 2008 in Madison occurred Saturday morning, Nov. 22, when the irrepressible Madison Pond Hockey group dropped the puck on the big pond at the west end of Odana Golf Course. Coming a full month before the winter solstice, this marks the earliest start ever for the group's outdoor season, according to MPH's Bill Provencher.
Catherine Woodward, another pond-hockey enthusiast, notes that the group returned Sunday, to bring total playing time for the weekend to seven hours. "We made sure to bring ropes and life jackets - just in case," she adds, acknowledging the hazards presented by early-season ice.
A flurry of other activities suggest that winter enthusiasts here are poised for a fast start out of the gate.
For the first time in its 72-year history, the Madison Speed Skating Club is scheduled to host the North American Short-Track Championships Dec. 5-7 at McFarland Community Ice Center, 4812 Marsh Rd. Katie Traver, an assistant coach for the Madison club, expects between 165 and 200 skaters to compete in divisions ranging from elementary school-age kids up to masters in their 40s and 50s.
While U.S. short-track standouts Apolo Anton Ohno and Shani Davis won't be in attendance, many of the best age-group skaters from the U.S. and Canada will take to the Olympic-sized ice sheet. "Our kids who are going to be here could be on the Olympic team in Vancouver in 15 months. We have a lot of talent," says Traver.
Skaters in the intermediate and senior divisions can reach 30 miles per hour, and "we have some smokin' little midgets," the name assigned to skaters in the 10- and 11-year-old age bracket. "It's quick, and it's exciting," Traver says, and you "can see the whole race right there in front of you."
There will be five Madison Speed Skating Club members to watch during the meet: Diane Crossfield, Dan Greene and Chuck Hansell in the masters division, Luke Tweddale in the juvenile division and Jacob Riley in the pony division for ages 9 and under. Admission is free for spectators, of which there's room for about 100.
Not all the early-season action is taking place on the ice this winter. At Elver Park on Madison's southwest side, the Madison Community Foundation, city of Madison and the city's Parks Division are teaming to install snow-making equipment for Elver's enormous sledding hill.
Notwithstanding last winter's snows, which buried the previous seasonal snowfall record by more than two feet, not all winters have been so generous with the white stuff. From 1971 to 2000, Madison averaged about 50 inches of snow per year, dipping as low as 26.3 for the winter of 1976-77.
Such miserly snow totals can be worn off even the city's most impressive sledding hill with heavy use, and a sledding hill without sufficient snow is, well, a hill.
The new gear will include two snow-making cannons made by Areco Snow Systems, a Swedish firm. One will be at the base of the hill, one in the middle. It is, after all, a big hill. The cannons will be connected to plumbing and electrical hookups installed by parks staff; the target date for having everything ready is about Dec. 15.
The Madison Nordic Ski Club is also on board, contributing $20,000 toward the project. The club will benefit from the PistenBully Paana snow-grooming behemoth that is also part of the initiative. The Finnish-German machine is now on the proverbial "slow boat from Europe," says the parks department's Laura Whitmore. Once it arrives, it will be used to groom Elver's Nordic ski trails as well as the sledding hill. Elver will serve as a host site for some Madison Winter Festival programs, sealing its status as Madison's "winter wonderland."