After midnight. Stars by the hundreds. A hush over the frozen terrain, and ice like glass. The junior-league hockey tots cleared out hours ago, the warming hut closed at nine, and it's just you, your silver blades, and a gaggle of stray skaters looping the lake. All 33 Minneapolis rinks have melted off by now, but come mid-December the plows and early-morning hoses will be out smoothing the surface again. Any rink's okay when the urge hits, but among die-hards Lake of the Isles is tops for unimpeded sprints and spins. Steve Vogen, who heads up the city's maintenance crew, says the nearly two-acre rink has been drawing crowds for some 80 years; back in the North Stars era, players used to run pickup games here in the twilight hours. (Bonus: Best Place for Pickup Hockey. Pro hockey may be making its return to St. Paul, but as long as you live in Minnesota, you might as well play the game the way the founding fathers intended: outdoors, on this perfectly frozen lake where boards have been set up within the public rink. Beware the usual suspects wearing kneepads--they may be taking the game a little more seriously than you are.) In these latter days, a warming house with port-a-potties has been installed and a bank of lights has been added, but the white birches and jack pines have only grown into a wilder backdrop along the banks. The fun usually ends around Presidents' Day, Vogen says, when "the sun gets high in the sky, the lake weeds start giving off methane, and big old gas bubbles turn the ice into a hazard--like trying to skate over mumps."


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