In This State: Don Heise, the iceman of Curtis Pond

In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at http://www.maplecornermedia.com/inthisstate/.

Don Heise is a familiar sight on Curtis Pond near Maple Corner in Calais. Heise has created a vibrant winter recreation community with his unstinting passion for making ice and keeping it clear on the pond. Photo by Andrew Nemethy

Don Heise is a familiar sight on Curtis Pond near Maple Corner in Calais. Heise has created a vibrant winter recreation community with his unstinting passion for making ice and keeping it clear on the pond. Photo by Andrew Nemethy

Some conjure up a field of dreams.

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

The shimmering promise of a sheet of ice has been calling to 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, 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 more into competitive swimming. His fascination with water in its frozen state started when his oldest son Chad, who is now 45, was about 4 years old.

Heise decided to build a small skating rink in his back yard so Chad could learn how to skate when 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, 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 house painter 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 5-year-old son, Dillon, on the pond.

“It’s beautiful, it’s so Vermont, the community feeling,” she says.

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.

The sign "Corona Cove" marks a sheet of ice created by Don Heise for an upcoming curling contest on Curtis Pond in Calais. Photo by Andrew Nemethy

The sign “Corona Cove” marks a sheet of ice created by Heise for an upcoming curling contest on the pond. Photo by Andrew Nemethy

Heise’s unstinting effort has roped in dozen of others, like Jim Picone, a physician’s assistant whose ice 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.

Five-year-old Dillon Nicholas and his mom Sarah get ready to head out onto one of the ice sheets  on Curtis Pond, where  Don Heise, whose house sits right on the pond, has turned the pond into a winter skating hotspot. Photo by Andrew Nemethy

Five-year-old Dillon Nicholas and his mom Sarah get ready to head out onto one of the ice sheets on Curtis Pond, where Don Heise, whose house sits right on the pond, has turned the pond into a winter skating hotspot. Photo by Andrew Nemethy

“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 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; 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 from his house and some nailed together two by fours laid on the ice were the hockey net. 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.”)

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

Comments

  1. Elizabeth Templeton :

    “Where’s Daddy?” “Down at the rink.”

    I grew up outside of Syracuse, NY and every winter during all my grade-school years my father created and maintained the ice sheet on the blacktop playground at the elementary school a block from our home. Around Thanksgiving he would put up the boards along the edge. Once temperatures dropped, evening after evening he would don long johns, sweaters, heavy boots and a parka (Army-Navy stores being the source of serious cold-weather gear in the 1950s), fire up the huge, heavy Gravely machine and trudge down the street with it, either to flood the rink, smooth it, or plow it.

    But for all that, he didn’t skate much, because he had grown up with river skating. He really preferred skiing.

  2. Julie Tessler :

    Great story about a great man and a whole community worth of fun!

    Thanks Andrew

  3. Luci Stephens :

    The story evoked fond memories of skating on the Monpelier Rec Dep’t rinks many years ago, then home for hot chocolate and a warm bath. What fun to read, and what a wonderful treasure Mr. Heise is for his community. I also thank you for for these great stories!

  4. wendy freundlich :

    It’s been a haven for my children and myself. Something we can count on…a pick up pond hockey game on any given time of any given weekend, when the temperatures allow. Friends, comraderie, fresh air and good old clean fun. And no electronics, to boot!

  5. I miss Don! From a youth hockey coach who used to play a lot of hockey with Don, this article made my day. The memories of growing up in the “land of 10,000 lakes” in Minnesota where playing pond hockey might have been learned before walking, are cherished pictures and feelings of learning a sport while being one with nature. Indoor rinks have taken over but Don is still providing that nostalgia for new generations of kids who may someday recall that GROAN of the outdoor pond ice, or the FULL MOON on that particular crisp night when the ice was perfect…or perhaps the HOOT of an owl. That there is no other better way to learn the game for it brings you into one with the natural surroundings that make you love the game of hockey, for instance, before hearing nothing but the screech of an over zealous coach or the hazing of the kids with the brand new equipment. Bless Don and Bev for the memory of one great party on that pond many moons ago!

  6. Jack Donovan :

    Wonderful story that brings back memories of my youth
    playing pick-up neighborhood hockey on Mill Pond in Weymouth
    Massachusetts…back before the area became overrun by
    condos and concrete…it’s nice to know that those times
    still exist in some form here in Vermont!!

Comments

*

Annual fundraising appeal: If we had a dollar for every comment, we could end this annual fund drive now. Donate now.
Comment policy Privacy policy
Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "In This State: Don Heise, the iceman of Curtis Pond"