The Mountain Times

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In Don Heise’s dreams, a frozen playground shines

Some conjure up a field of dreams.

Not Don Heise. His vision is a pond of dreams - the frozen, not liquid version.

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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 pick-up game.

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 says.

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 version.

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 says.

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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 says.
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 average.

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,"  he says.
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 quips.

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  "Corona Cove.")

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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 passion.

"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.