By Jim Force | Special to Wausau Pilot & Review

Ask golfers about a course they’ve just played and they’ll probably comment on the condition of the greens.

Ask curlers about a curling venue and they’ll talk about the ice.

Competitors at the USA Curling National Club Championships at the Wausau Curling Center next week will find the ice in perfect condition. That’s because the surface will be prepared by Shawn Olesen of USA Curling, supported by the local club’s hard-working ice team.

“Shawn is the ice master,” says Pete Dodson of the Wausau ice crew. “He does the ice for the Olympics. He’ll be here starting Monday, and we’ll work with him to get the ice ready.” 

Pebbled ice

The conditions and characteristics of the surface the curling stones rumble over on their way to the target are critical to the sport. 

Unlike a hockey or skating rink, curling ice has a “pebbled” or slightly roughened surface. This allows the curling stones–which weigh 42 pounds and travel over the ice on a circular bottom rim–to curl or curve several feet after the player delivers them. Their direction depends on whether the stone is turned clockwise or counterclockwise. 

While some curling clubs have an “ice guru,” it’s a group effort at Wausau. Dodson works with Pete Susens and Dale Gerlach, along with a willing crew of volunteers from the local club.

“We’ve worked exceptionally hard,” says Dodson. “We all see the ice differently but we come together as a team. It’s a good approach.” 

The pebbled surface, created when one of the ice crew sprinkles droplets of water that freeze almost instantly on the ice, is just one of the many keys to making a good curling surface.

Fall startup

Beginning several weeks before the season begins, the Wausau ice crew “floods” the 18,000 square-foot refrigerated concrete surface at the curling center. Each flood uses about 1,000 gallons, and there can be up to nine floods before the surface is ready for curling. The water is specially cleaned, using filters and a reverse osmosis unit to remove any impurities or suspended solids. 

“The floods put down a thin layer of water that freezes overnight. The many floods will make a solid ice structure a little over an inch thick,” says Dodson. “Structure is important,” he adds. “We want a solid sheet of ice that won’t crack or break if something is dropped on it.”

Before the final flood, the bullseye targets, lines, and sometimes logos or insignia, are frozen into the ice (at Wausau, each of the community’s high school logos is featured).

Then the crew uses mechanically driven scrapers to make sure the ice surface is absolutely level. 

Following that, the pebbling takes place, the pebbles are “nipped” by another device to even the surface, and the ice is pebbled again. Flood, scrape, pebble, nip, pebble.

A big job

“We calculate that it takes over 900 hours of volunteer time to get the ice ready for the season in the fall,” says Dodson. 

But that’s not all. Every morning, often on weekends, the ice crew is busy cleaning, nipping, re-pebbling the ice, and vacuuming the bordering carpet, getting the area ready for the day’s curling.  

In addition, after each game, the ice is swept and cleaned with large mops which are pushed over the entire surface. 

Clean ice is just as critical as clean water. Curlers make extra efforts to keep their shoes and equipment clean, but Dodson says tiny debris still collects on the curling surface and needs to be removed after each game.

The ice crew carefully monitors the humidity and temperature in the “ice house,” as well. A large air treatment unit in the machine room behind the ice sheets controls humidity and keeps air temperature at 41 degrees F. The temperature of the ice is maintained between 23 and 24 degrees F.

Championships, March 16-19

Regular league curling at Wausau will end this weekend.

Then on Monday, the ice crew will get busy preparing for the Curling Club National Championships which begin on Thursday, March 16.

Olesen, from North Dakota, will be on hand to supervise ice preparation. “We’ll reflood the entire surface,” says Dodson, “take it back to zero and rebuild it.”

The National Club Championships continue at the Wausau Curling Center on Friday and Saturday, March 17-18, and close with final matches on Sunday, March 19.

The public is welcome to attend and watch excellent shot-making by 24 teams from across the country, including two from Wausau, the host club.

Tickets can be purchased at the door, and food and merchandise will be available. Selected games will be streamed live by Wausau Area Access Media. 

The curling center is located at 1920 Curling Way, on Wausau’s southeast side.