Pond Hockey Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe Pond Hockey: Homewood CA, Quail Lake

Lake Tahoe Pond Hockey: Homewood CA, Quail Lake

Here’s the Tahoe pond hockey article I wrote for The Weekly Magazine this month – it’s one of the regional freebies here on the North Shore and Truckee.

“Many folks don’t realize it but Tahoe has a Two Act Winter. The Second is the reason most of us moved out here – Pacific Maritime dumps and the deepest, most ridiculous powder days imaginable. But the First Act is what’s such a surprise: the ever-changing, and never-consistent, Tahoe pond skating season. I’m always caught off guard, and hugely pleased, when I get that first text from the guy who organizes daily skates in his neighborhood. Like presents under a tree, the skating season here surprises and excites me every year. It starts discretely in the higher elevations and then slowly moves down to lake level. By the time you see people on the roadside pond in Tahoe Vista there’s already been a month of hockey under the belts of numerous players around town. But the beauty of a frozen pond is that anyone can enjoy it on their own terms and without any gear whatsoever. The other day there were kids and dogs spilling out of sleds on a local pond – not one had skates on.


In autumn when most of us have barely started scouring the woods for deadfall to burn, the friend mentioned above has his entire house in order and is out flooding, scraping and re-freezing the little pond across the street. He uses wide, heavy steel blades with rebar handles to Zamboni (scrape and resurface) the ice as he manicures it in the early season – of course he custom-forged them for this sole purpose. The one time I tried to emulate Tim, I grabbed a six-pack, a borrowed 5-gallon bucket and a sledgehammer. Then I gathered a couple mutant friends to slam a hole and splash water all over a rinky dink pond. This was our attempt to create a smooth surface and it ended up looking like a hydro-tie-dye. If we were all squirrels, Tim would have acorn appetizers, experimental hazelnut entrees and selections of candied, freeze-dried, and smoked walnuts in climate-controlled storage – the rest of us would be slopping from a cold barrel of foul-smelling pinenut paste with our fingers…or claws.


There are different types of crews that discover frozen ponds and have mini-mock seasons on the ice. They’ll usually be at a spot where passersby get clued in to the scene, some new guys or gals will join in, they get an informal list going and get together a couple more times. After playing, they hope for wind each night because that Mother Nature’s Zamboni. The reason I like playing with Tim’s crew is because he eschews the regular hockey league scene yet I’ve never seen a more organized, militaristic approach to pond hockey. You get the text or call a day before the skate and you must respond quickly to be counted. If there’s an uneven number of guys Tim finds another – likely someone who was born with blades on his feet. The time is always the same: 8am and “don’t be late.” In addition to all this, I’ve never worn so much gear on a pond. The only difference between this and league games are hip pads and a team jersey. The goals we use are the typical 2×4 arch, laid on the ice, short side down. Skate saves are the order of the day because to score the puck can’t be more than an inch off the ice. This is another reason I love playing with Tim’s crew.


You see, in California a lot of people learn to play hockey on pavement. There’s something fundamentally different in learning this way versus putting in time on a weather-laden, possibly dangerous, surface where all the guys played competitively in high school and a few laced ’em up in college. Hockey has an inherent pecking order much like a pride of lions feeding on a carcass. The tough, old guys get the most respect then it moves on down the line until you get to the new kid – he’s the son of one of the regulars and has been watching from the sidelines for a few years. In most cases his inclusion isn’t a function of skill. Usually when one of these kids enters the adult game, his speed, fitness and hand skills (plus his general youth!) are enough to school most of the folks out there. The bigger factor is the slippery slope of Respect. If the kid has none he’ll shoot too much, lift the puck off the ice too much, and showboat too much. He and, by association, his dad risk being banished from the pride. That’s how it is at Tim’s Pond and it adds a dimension to the sessions that is hard to find west of the Mississippi.


The best place to skate in this area is the Boca Reservoir. It’s the largest sheet of ice. It freezes relatively early because of Truckee’s colder temperatures. It’s easily accessible. On a given Sunday in a snowless December, you’ll probably find three rinks of folks playing puck. There will be dozens of people free skating toward the far shores. Someone spins donuts on a four-wheeler. Smoke from grills on the ice start smelling delicious around 11 and dogs clumsily visit every pod of folks – and bbq’s. Every now and then you’ll hear the wimpy whine of a single-prop as a local pilot lands somewhere on the huge sheet. It’s a classic California winter scene.


Other places people frequent on blades are Prossor Reservoir, the ponds in Coldstream Canyon, and because of its roadside visibility, the small pond in Tahoe Vista. Less popular spots are Tamarack Pond on top of Mt. Rose and Quail Lake up at Homewood. The most interesting ones are Cascade Lake south of Emerald Bay and Lake Tahoe itself. The irony of writing a skating story on Tahoe is that technically, it doesn’t freeze. Some manmade alterations to the shoreline occasionally allow for some pirouettes or a game of puck to break out. One of these is near the entrance to Blackwood Canyon, though it hasn’t happened in the last 15 years or so. Another one is the Tahoe Vista boat ramp. Given my penchant for belated winter preparations, I discovered this spot while bringing my Hobie Cat off the beach in November and having to break 3 inches of ice to get in the harbor.


Tahoe generates incredible memories from the First Act of Winter. The lakes can freeze so perfectly that we have to spraypaint pucks in order to see them. When Cascade went, you could see boulders 70 feet below. One guy’s brother flew out from Massachusetts to skate that year – they made commemorative hats. My first, “proudest” dad moment was feeding our newborn a bottle while wearing all my gear between scrimmages on a frozen pond. Boca got ugly one season and illustrated plate tectonics which created a 3-foot high fissure for hundred of yards – dogs swam in the weird puddle under the crown of it. My final memory from last season, though, was Tim taunting my team about the concluding goal. There was big snow coming in so we all knew it was the closing skate of the season. “You’re gonna remember this comeback ‘til next year, Al!” He was right. They scored.”

pond hockey skating lake tahoe quail lake homewood ca wipeout

Lake Tahoe pond hockey: Homewood CA, Quail Lake wipeout

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