To make it through the winter on Lake Champlain, one has to find a use for the lake. On a now-frozen Malletts Bay, that means two things: ice fishing and hockey.

With the outline of a small rink shoveled out a few days before the New Year and a plan to enlist some friends to finish the job, my housemate and I rose on New Years Day to find that the neighbor two houses down was trying to one-up us. And he was succeeding.

Not only was his “pond hockey” rink bigger, he had recruited a guy across the street with a $15K loader to plow his surface and use the bucket to form tightly-packed, uniform “boards” around the edges. He had also dragged a long length of hose down and was beginning to water his newly-formed rink to create that oh-so-necessary smooth surface.

Incited, we harried our friends to come over quickly and resolved to not be outdone. When our “help” arrived, we took to our own project with renewed purpose and looked for ways to out-do our competitive neighbor.

Now, if you’ve ever tried to build a pond hockey rink or backyard rink, you may have done a little research first so you knew how to do the job right. We did, too. Fortunately, there are tons of online resources that advise on the project. Here are a few that we turned to:

Unfortunately, most of the sites dealt with building a rink in the backyard, on the ground, using boards and a liner. We already had ice (a frozen lake) and weren’t interested in building boards. Snow banks would do for us. We also weren’t about to fork over cash for a backyard rink “kit.” Hockey is expensive enough, you know?

With angry glances cast at our competition, our group of five began to shovel the rest of the snow from our rink. Our loader-driving neighbor, having already cleared the enemy’s rink and touting no formal allegiance, quickly arrived to our aid, performing the same rapid snow-clearing job on our rink that he had just completed minutes before. Other than the disparity in rink size (ours was smaller), the honors were now even.

Then our neutral neighbor offered to loan us a game-changing weapon, which we quickly accepted: an electric pump with a 50-foot hose. The balance was now tipped.

With a chisel we opened up a foot-wide hole in the ice, digging down about 5 inches or so. We placed the pump in the hole, plugged it in to the extension cord, and watched as gallons of lake water began chugging through the hose and spitting out the open end onto the surface of the ice. There was no question in our heads that we would be enjoying some 3v3 pick-up hockey days before our neighbor would. If he wanted to rent our ice, that would be fine, we decided. $25/half hour.

Well here it is, January 5th, and still no rink. Why? Remember those backyard hockey building sites? While much of their step-by-step advice didn’t pertain to our “on-the-cheap” method, a few basic, undeniable guidelines still exist. Here they are:

– Only “flood” the rink surface on days when the temperature is below freezing. (And we’re not talking about 31°F. It really needs to be in the 20s or below).

– Only “flood” the rink surface if the forecast does not call for a record-breaking snowfall of 32″ (or any precipitation, for that matter).

In our eagerness to beat the neighbor to the puck, we overlooked the fact that the temperature on New Year’s Day hovered just around 32°F, even into the night. We also ignored the Winter Weather Advisory which began early the next day (Jan 2) and extended until late Sunday night (Jan 3).

32 inches of snow later, our rink is back to covered, and the lake water that we pumped onto the surface — which is buried by snow — still hasn’t frozen. Its consistency is somewhere between Slush Puppy and snow cone.

So chapter 1 of To Build an Ice Rink closes, with the main characters set back but not defeated. Stay tuned for the next installment, when our heroes learn from their mistakes and make the greatest outdoor hockey rink since the 2010 Winter Classic.