National News

The Reflecting Pool Isn’t a Skating Rink, Washington Tells Visitors

Posted January 8, 2018 10:27 p.m. EST
Updated January 8, 2018 10:33 p.m. EST

Welcome to the season of unauthorized public ice.

With extreme cold blanketing parts of the East Coast this winter, the slick allure of ice has been too tempting to pass up for some. There have been plenty of opportunities for sliding, slipping and skating — even in places where it is risky and not allowed — from Boston to New York to the nation’s capital.

In the past week, parks authorities in Washington reminded visitors that where there is ice, there is usually water, after a number of people trying to skate or walk across the surface of the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall broke through the ice.

No one was injured. But with temperatures dipping to the single digits on some days and winds bestowing a chill that makes the air feel below zero even if you’re not wet, anyone who gets dipped into the water, even if just knee-deep, risks hypothermia, the National Mall and Memorial Parks said in a Facebook post over the weekend.

“Ice skating can lead to a cold and dangerous swim,” the post added.

The Reflecting Pool, more than a third of a mile long and over 2 feet deep in some parts, is a centerpiece of the capital’s National Mall, hosting millions of visitors a year. In the summer, parks authorities have warned people not to swim or wade in it. In the winter, the pool turns into an impromptu winter playground.

Over the years, visitors have posted footage of themselves on YouTube sliding and skating across its surface, uninterrupted by the parks authorities.

On Monday, with the temperature in the mid-20s, the pool was marked with yardslong cracks all over the ice — but that didn’t keep bold visitors from walking on its surface.

Dozens of tourists slid cautiously along the edges, others wrestled playfully and some ventured toward the center of the pool to pose for photographs.

“It’s extremely dangerous,” said Franco Benedetto, a tourist from Tucumán, Argentina, who was visiting Washington with his girlfriend, Romina Apestey. “We just saw four, five people messing around out there. Really risky.”

Mary Fredlake of the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, who was out for a morning run around the monuments on Monday, said her friends had seen people playing pickup hockey on the Reflecting Pool’s surface on Sunday.

Officials from the U.S. Park Police, National Park Service rangers, and volunteers patrolled the premises. Alao Hogan, a volunteer with the park service’s Volunteers-in-Parks program, shooed tourists off the pool.

He joked that it was “a bit like herding cats,” but added that people did move off the ice when asked.

Posters — traditionally used to urge visitors not to wade in warm water — advised visitors against testing their luck on the ice. But the warnings were written in English, and many tourists traveling to the capital in the winter months come from foreign countries.

“Sir! Sir!” Hogan shouted, in a chorus with officials, at one sneaker-skater — then, a few beats later, tried, “Señor!”

Sgt. James Dingeldein, a spokesman for the parks police, said Monday that crowds had increased since last week, when officers were also at the pool warning visitors that the ice was not thick enough for safe skating or sliding.

“The draw,” he said, “is to be able to say you skated with the memorials in the background.” Dingeldein said the parks police often had to enforce other bans on activity, such as sliding or skating down the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial, which is across the pool from the Washington Monument. “That is not in keeping with the intended purpose of the memorial — solemn reflection,” he said.

The Reflecting Pool has attracted skaters to its winter ice since soon after it was built in the 1920s, according to archival photographs at the Library of Congress. In the 1960s, the feasibility of freezing the pool specifically for skaters was studied, but high costs for the artificial freezing process have proved prohibitive.

Across the Potomac River, ice skaters and hockey players took advantage of the frozen Chesapeake & Ohio Canal near the Chain Bridge, prompting the National Park Service on Jan. 5 to issue warnings that ice conditions were not monitored.

Of course, the lure of high-profile skating spots is not limited to Washington.

In Central Park in New York, there are two authorized skating rinks: Wollman Rink and Lasker Rink. But skating is not permitted on any lake or pond in New York’s parks, First Deputy Commissioner Liam Kavanagh of the Parks Department said in a statement Monday.

In Boston, driving past Boston Common on Friday, Ryan Woods, a spokesman for the city’s Parks Department, noticed about a half dozen people skating on the Public Garden lagoon, which is a site for swan boats in the summer but was not outfitted with an artificial freezing system and stopped being an authorized skating rink in the ‘90s.

Now, when the weather gets cold, it is drained of all but about 18 inches of water. Woods said he suspected some skaters could be trying to relive their childhood memories.

“The lagoon used to be a place where you could skate,” Woods said. “But we do not have a rule against it. It is at your own risk.”