On a perfect day, when the sun shines over a frozen Lake Ellyn and the wind dies down, there is perhaps no better place for a pair of skates to cut across the ice, says Carl Cepuran.
The head coach of the Glen Ellyn Speed Skating Club described some of his best runs on the lake, which he believes is one of the village's best assets.
"Lake Ellyn has a Midwestern and even national reputation in the speed skating community as being one of the most ideal places to skate. It's so beautiful there," Cepuran said.
But, for the past two years, the lake sat empty and quiet through winter. Spurts of unseasonably warm temperatures kept the ice from freezing deep enough, disappointing ice-skaters, both recreational and professional.
"If you talk to people who are life-long Glen Ellyn residents, they all talk about their experience of going down to Lake Ellyn and skating on the lake as a kid and as an adult," said Dave Harris, executive director of the Glen Ellyn Park District. "There's just something about it. I think Lake Ellyn being so scenic and being such a centerpiece of Glen Ellyn, it adds to the skating environment."
In 2001, an anonymous donor gave $2 million to the park district, requesting that some of it be used to improve Lake Ellyn's water quality and skating conditions. The district in 2005 used $300,000 of the donation to install a bypass system that, during the winter months, diverts storm water runoff that contains road salt through a pipe and underneath the lake. Vortex separators were also put in to prevent debris from going into the lake.
"The thought was that it keeps some of the sediment out and the elements out of Lake Ellyn that was hindering it from freezing as effectively as it used to," Harris said.
Two years ago, the park district also paid roughly $21,000 for a utility vehicle and water wagon that they retrofitted into a "Homeboni," which is similar to a Zamboni but light enough to go onto the ice surface of the lake. It is used to clear snow and lay water to fill in the grooves and cracks, Harris said.
Snow acts as a blanket, so keeping the surface clear of it can help it stay frozen longer.
"It's always a challenge to get out on Lake Ellyn. It is not a big lake but it's a big, expansive ice surface when it's frozen and the challenge is to remove snow off of it and have quality ice," Harris said. "While this machine is not going to be the answer to everything, it should help us be better at making ice."
Despite the new addition, staff haven't had the chance to try out the "Homeboni" on Lake Ellyn, since the lake hasn't frozen in the past two years.
Meanwhile, the park district uses it for other maintenance such as clearing sidewalks and parking lots, Harris said.
Glen Ellyn started hosting speed skating races on Lake Ellyn in 1938, which was the catalyst for the formation of the speed skating club, Cepuran said.
"Glen Ellyn, ever since then, has always had a strong tradition of skating and especially skating outdoors on Lake Ellyn."
Although the speed skating club moved its practices to an indoor rink in the 1990s because of the uncertainty of skating outdoors, members still look for opportunities to get out on the lake. Being among the community builds visibility, support and is a good recruiting tool, Cepuran said.
Each year, as soon as the ice on the lake is thick enough, the team organizes a meet, where parents and their kids can participate.
"It's just a lot of fun and it can really build character. The weather and the ice isn't always the best but it makes you stronger and tougher," Cepuran said. "You can be skating on the best manicured ice indoors and everyone would tell you they'd take a 40-degree day with no wind and sun outdoors."
The park district also tries to offer ice skating at Newton Park, where tennis courts are flooded and frozen for skating. Last year, it only lasted three days because the ice melted from warm weather, Harris said. Park officials this year purchased a $7,600 tarp liner for the court, so if unseasonably warm temperatures hit the area, the foundation of the ice is less likely to melt away.
"It should help build a stronger base of ice which will hold up better during various weather conditions so you don't lose your foundation and have to start from scratch," Harris said. "We'll see how it works."
Newton Park is one option for outdoor skating, Cepuran said, but it doesn't replace the strong tradition of skating at Lake Ellyn.
"There are people who remember this as a kid. Skating on Lake Ellyn really strikes a chord and resonates with people. It's really something that Glen Ellyn is fortunate to have."