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Smooth operators

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By Stephen Knapp

That Evergreen Lake presents an idyllic setting for the rough-and-ready ice skater is thanks to Mother Nature. That the ancient winter sports venue can be skated at all is thanks to Evergreen Park and Recreation District employee Mike Bitterly and visionary ice man Frank Zamboni.

“Mike is our main Zamboni driver,” says EPRD parks supervisor Heart Cameron. “The Zamboni is our bread and butter.”

Like almost everybody everywhere, Cameron uses the term “Zamboni” as a noun. In fact, what Frank Zamboni invented in 1949 is more rightly called an ice-resurfacing machine, and he built the first one on top of a WWII surplus Jeep. These days, more than a dozen outfits, mostly in Europe, produce their own variations on the American original, but their combined output can’t begin to scratch the Frank J. Zamoni & Co. Inc.’s even coverage of the ice-planing market.

“Early in the season, we’ll sneak it out on the ice to test the conditions,” Cameron says. “Somebody will see it and start calling their friends, like, ‘They’ve got the Zamboni out!’ I think they appreciate it as much as we do.”

Most winter mornings, Bitterly rises in the dark, piles on thick layers of personal insulation and heads down to the lake. Just as the black sky behind Bear Mountain begins to gray, when it first becomes possible to make out your frosty breath in front of your face, he climbs aboard the district’s venerable ice-resurfacing machine and goes to work grooming a full 3 acres of skating ice.

“It takes about six hours to do the whole thing,” says Bitterly, a big man who looks small behind the wheel of the great white Goliath. “It can be pretty cold, but it’s fun, too. There’s peace and quiet, and you get to watch the sun come up every morning. It’s nice.”

In primitive times, before the advent of Zamboni’s first commercial resurfacing machine hit the ice, teams of men with hand-scrapers and brooms were required to smooth the way for the skating public. Zamboni’s boxy contrivance unites scraping and sweeping functions under one expansive hood, then goes one better by laying a glassy film of water in its track.

“We got our Zamboni from Wisconsin about 10 years ago,” Cameron says. “It ran on natural gas when we got it, but we went through those tanks way too fast. Last year, Mike and I converted it to gasoline. Now it’s got a 1971-style dual port VW motor in it, like they had in the old Bugs.”

The Zamboni machine isn’t a fleet craft, which may be why they never broadcast ice-resurfacing machine races on ESPN. Bitterly lumbers across the ice at a plodding 5 mph. The engine is surprisingly quiet, and the massive steel blade dragging along behind makes no discernible noise as it scrapes the iron-hard lake surface. At long intervals, Bitterly steers over to the southern shore and dumps 60 cubic feet of shaved ice in a great pile — the world’s biggest snow-cone.

“It’s all hydraulic, all-wheel-drive and steers on a dime,” he says proudly. “I’m from California, originally, and I don’t think I even saw one of these until I started here. It’s great to drive.”

Bitterly thinks EPRD’s Zamboni machine dates to 1962, which would make it a Zamboni Model F ice resurfacer.

“Does it have a paddle and chain snow conveyor system, or a vertical augur?” asks the company’s head of marketing, Paula Coony, from her office in Zamboni’s 50,000-square-foot plant in Paramount, Calif. In fact, a massive augur turns endlessly in front of the 57-pound blade, sweeping away everything in its path. “That would probably make it an early Model HD, which came out in ’64.”

Either way, the old monster has been scouring ice for well over 40 years. According to Coony, that confers no particular distinction.

“Forty and 50 years is not uncommon,” Coony says dutifully. “A lot of times, youth leagues will buy one used and tinker with it, keep it alive.”

These days, Zamboni machines tend more to the electric than the combustible, and, no, you can’t just stop by the showroom and drive one home. Each one is handmade to order with a delivery time between six and 10 months. Since, 1949, the company has turned out something like 8,500 ice-resurfacing machines ranging in price from a few thousand dollars to $150,000, not to mention an assortment of edgers, artificial-turf-related products and sundry Zamboni souvenir merchandise.

“I’m sure there are at least a couple thousand of them in regular use right now,” says Coony. “A lot of our machines have a long life span.”

Round and round Bitterly goes, leaving long score marks in his wake. It’s a safe bet the machine once cleaned the ice at a hockey arena. Up front, the Stars and Stripes make a patriotic first impression. Up top, easily readable from the cheap seats, a grinning cartoon fan hollers “HEY BEER MAN!” Suddenly, the blade catches some bad ice and the entire 5,500-pound machine hitches and stutters. Bitterly eases off on the throttle until the rough patch passes, then accelerates back to a brisk creep.

“We replace the blade about every three days,” Cameron says. “This ice is pretty tough on the engine, especially since it’s already an old machine. We spend a lot of time on maintenance.”

Indeed, Evergreen Lake could break the spirit of the newest and boldest machine. Though tranquil and still on top, its watery heart is very much a body in motion. Worse yet, wild temperature variations play havoc with its frozen crust.

“It can be below zero at 6 o’clock, and by afternoon it’s 40 degrees,” explains Cameron, whose team battles daily against a never-ending succession of bumps, blisters, crests and cracks. “The worst things are the cracks, because you can get broken ankles if you don’t get on them right away. Our guys fill slush buckets and manually fill the cracks with slush. It sets like concrete, and then we run the Zamboni over it.”

Evergreen Lake opens for skating at 8 a.m. every day. At 8:01, a handful of hockey fanatics tumble out of the Lake House and start tearing up one of the lake’s eight hockey rinks. Like she does every winter morning, Idledale resident Jarmila Gorman laces up and surrenders her cares to the ice.

“The Zamboni is necessary,” Gorman says. “If I get out there on my speed skates and the ice is chunky, it’s not going to happen. No, you’ve got to have a Zamboni here.”

By 12:30, Bitterly has covered a slow, frosty 30 miles and shaved a couple of tons of ice off the top of Evergreen Lake. By March, he and the Zamboni machine will have traveled in circles for nearly 2,000 miles and piled a small Himalaya of ice by the lakeshore.

While EPRD’s Zamboni machine is technically equipped to deliver a finishing coat of hot water as it passes, there is no facility at Evergreen Lake capable of servicing that function.

“Instead, we use a hose with a high-end nozzle and spray down the ice after the Zamboni’s done,” says Cameron. “Our guys do an A-1 job with what they have to deal with, but without the Zamboni, we’d have a lot of cranky skaters.”

Truth is, some people come out of the box cranky and never learn to chill out. Skaters accustomed to the climate-controlled perfection of an indoor rink, for example, have a hard time appreciating le difference naturale.

“Some people do complain about the ice conditions up here, but it is a lake, and it’s never going to be as smooth as an indoor rink,” Cameron says. “But most people who skate here like being outdoors.

“And look around,” he adds, gesturing vaguely at the stately Lake House, the pine-clad hills, the pale morning sun climbing into a powder-blue sky. “This is a classic, romantic setting. This is why people skate at Evergreen Lake.”

Cold facts about Zamboni machines:

, Zamboni’s ice resurfacing machines didn’t get much commercial traction until 1950, when world champion figure skater and Hollywood darling Sonja Henie bought two for her personal use.

, In the Midwest, a Zamboni machine operator’s funeral procession was led by a Zamboni machine.

, In 2001, a Zamboni machine drove from Newfoundland to British Columbia. The trip took four months.

, In January, 2004, a superstitious Zamboni machine operator for the Tampa Bay Lightning buried a pewter Zamboni charm at center ice, and the lightening went on to win the 2004 Stanley Cup.

, In February, 2005, Canadian McDonalds restaurants included a miniature Zamboni machine in their Happy Meals.

, In April, 2005, Road & Track magazine conducted road tests on a Zamboni machine, clocking its top speed at 9.7 mph. It ran a quarter-mile in 93.5 seconds.

, Besides the famed ice resurfacing machines, Frank Zamboni developed the “Grasshopper,” a machine that rolls up artificial turf, the “Astro Zamboni,” that sucks water out of artificial turf, the “Vault Carrier,” that lifts and carries cement cemetery vaults, and the “Black Widow,” that fills dirt atop buried cemetery vaults.

, Among other things, inventive tinkerers have turned their Zamboni machines into a barbecue smoker, a working hot tub and a road-worthy Willys Jeep.

, There are more than 40 Zamboni references in Charles Shultz’s “Peanuts” comic strip.

, The Zamboni ice resurfacing machine’s screen credits include prominent roles in: Ed TV, 1998; Monster Garage, 2002; CSI, 2003, 2006; Ice Princess, 2004

Modern Marvels, 2006; Cheers; Mystery, Alaska; Hands on History; Late Night with David Letterman.