Some conjure up a field of dreams.
Not Don Heise. His vision is a pond of dreams - the frozen, not
The shimmering promise of a sheet of ice has been calling him
for decades, a gelid fantasy that he's been chasing wherever he
lives. For Heise, nothing beats an outdoor playground under a blue
sky or bright cold moon, stretching smooth and ripple-free,
awaiting the scrape of a skater's stride, the excited shouts of
little kids or the scuffle and clatter of sticks in a pond-hockey
Nearly every Vermont town has them, unsung volunteers like Heise
who hitch onto a project and pull it to completion or concoct a
vision and them turn it into reality. We're well into
mixed-metaphor land, but when it comes to ice, Heise has hit a
remarkable home run in the little village of Maple Corner on the
long skinny body of water known as Curtis Pond. And he's got the
skating (and curling) rinks to prove it.
Heise, a native of the Finger Lakes region, wasn't into hockey
or skating much as a kid. He was into competitive swimming. His
fascination with water in its frozen state started when his oldest
son Chad, who is now 45, was about four years old.
Heise decided to build a small skating rink in his back yard so
Chad could learn how to skate while he and his wife, Bev, lived in
Waitsfield, where he was a physical education teacher at four local
elementary schools. "It just went from there," says Heise simply.
Which is, to put it mildly, an extreme understatement.
Through the years, Heise has unleashed his inner Johnny
Appleseed, except wherever he went, ice rinks sprouted.
"We built a couple of ice rinks in the Mad River Valley, and one
at Harwood (Union high school)," he says, all as part of an effort
to get a youth hockey program going. We're talking old-style ice,
outdoor sheets flooded and built up layer by layer on frozen
ground, and encircled by hockey boards. It's time-consuming,
laborious and insanely subject to the vagaries of Mother Nature,
which can ruin ice a dozen ways.
But Heise's ice-making mania found its ultimate expression in
1993 when he moved to Calais. At that point in later life, he had
shifted gears and turned into a housepainter and was looking for a
place close to ice. When he viewed the cottage for sale on Curtis
Pond, he knew he had found home.
"We wanted to live on the water and when we saw this place, it
was pretty obvious this would be great for outdoor skating," he
A youthful-looking 65 and retired, Heise lives with his wife Bev
in an attractive one-story house that sits on a tiny peninsula
jutting into a shallow cove on Curtis Pond. It's surrounded by
water on three sides, adjacent to the pond's lovely stone dam
spillway, and decorated by Heise's creative metal sculptures.
Well-known as a swimming hole, Curtis Pond's winter side was about
to take off.
Think of it as "The Iceman Cometh," rewritten in a happy rural
What Heise has created over the years is not only a recreation
gathering spot and pond hockey paradise but a thriving outdoor
winter community that he conjured up out of desire and sheer
dedication - not to mention a well of enthusiasm a lot deeper than
the shallow waters of the cove where he works his magic.
"It's very special," explains Sarah Nicholas, a Montpelier
resident who recently moved from Seattle and came out to skate
recently with her son 5-year-old son, Dillon, on the pond.
"It's beautiful, it's so Vermont, the community feeling," she
Heise's ice sheet of dreams, given the right weather conditions
and ample elbow grease, can include as many as three rinks,
an ice oval, curling rinks and a mile-long pathway that stretches
the length of lake.
Heise's unstinting effort has roped in dozen of others, like Jim
Picone, a physician's assistant whose passion includes the long
strides of nordic skating. Picone helps maintain this slice of
community, using his ATV to plow the end-to-end skating lane.
Picone credits Heise for "creating a great pond hockey empire by
his hard work and dedication."
"Don is one of Calais' treasures and I really doubt if any
committee could actually pull off the same amount of work," he
And a lot of work it is. On any given week, Heise puts in numerous
hours shoveling, snowblowing, scraping and flooding ice in the
evenings. He pre-shoveled snow before the latest storm for a couple
hours, and figures he works on the ice 12-15 hours a week on
It beats a seat on the school board, which is what someone
suggested he run for. He decided he'd rather put in the hours
"contributing something to the community" and giving folks a place
to learn a lifetime sport. Modest and quick with a smile that
lights up his blue eyes, he downplays what he's accomplished.
"It's like everybody takes the thing that they really love, and
pulls other people in," he explains.
No surprise, he's an avid apostle of pond hockey, whose
egalitarian nature embraces players of all sizes, skills and ages,
from college hot shots to beginner adults and 6-year-olds.
"It's kind of unique. It's one of those sports where people of
all ages and abilities can get out there and make it work,"
The participants have grown - he jokes a rough estimate indicates
he had "2,000 skater visits" one year - and he figures a dozen
hockey players got their start in the men's league he plays in by
learning on the pond. Now families and weekend hockey warriors of
all stripes show up to play, and moms, dads and kids come to learn
to skate or try a figure eight.
"The word kind of got out - build it and they will come," he
Heise's maintenance arsenal has expanded considerably from when
he first started out with a simple garden hose and some
nailed-together two by fours laid on the ice for a hockey goal. Now
his ice empire is maintained by a heavy-duty snow blower the Maple
Corner Community Center donated funds for a pump to flood the ice,
lights for night skating (plugged into his house), half a dozen new
scrapers, an abundant supply of sticks and pucks Heise and others
have donated, benches, a little warming hut, crates for beginners
to lean on, goal nets, and a bevy of amusing signs (The curling
rink is marked by a skull and crossbones sign that says
He pays for the gasoline and lights himself. "It's probably a
hundred bucks a year, when you think about it, it's pretty cheap
entertainment." he says.
Does he mind having his house be at the center of a major
community sports hub? "We love looking out and seeing people
skating," Heise says of himself and wife Bev, who has embraced his
"I think she thinks I'm a little crazy," he jokes. "Fortunately,
she's a little tolerant."
Andrew Nemethy is a journalist and editor from Calais. In This
State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont's innovators,
people, ideas and places.