Ice skating on Goodacre Lake in Beacon Hill Park was a common winter pleasure in the past. Generations of Victorians glided under the Stone Bridge on natural ice and circled the islands in the moonlight.
Not anymore. Since February, 1989, only thin ice--barely enough to support a few ducks and gulls--has formed on Goodacre Lake. The conspicuous lack of thick ice could be local evidence of the global warming trend melting distant glaciers and Arctic Ocean pack ice.
Long freezing spells without snow--the two requirements for good ice skating--occurred in half the winters from 1900 to 1969. Skaters flocked to Goodacre Lake, Swan Lake, Humpback Reservoir, Thetis Lake and Portage Inlet. When the Holland Point Yacht Pond was constructed in 1955, people skated there too.
The most spectacular skating in Victoria history occurred in January, 1862 when the entire Inner Harbour froze. Skaters skimmed as far as Laurel Point.
Nineteen continuous days of skating in the Park--the all-time record--was recorded by Park Administrator Herb Warren in 1936. Warren wrote: “There was good ice skating on Goodacre Lake during a long cold spell from February 7 to 25. The temperature dropped as low as 7 degrees Fahrenheit [-14 C].”
Skating was outstanding everywhere in the region that month. A Victoria Daily Times photo of seven women on skates included the caption: “Hundreds of skaters enjoyed the fine ice on Portage Inlet.”
The next year, 1937, Warren recorded “two and a half weeks” of continuous skating, the second longest stretch in Park history. Staff flooded Goodacre Lake every night to keep the ice in top condition.
Children living nearby hurried to the lake after school, rushed home for a quick dinner and returned to skate under the stars.
Roy Fletcher, whose family lived on Heywood Avenue, recalls: “One cold winter, either '55 or '56, the Parks Department built a bonfire in the Park for skaters to warm up.”
City officials, always concerned about safety and liability in case of accident, took responsibility for measuring ice thickness, posting warning signs when the ice was thin and notifying the public when it was safe to skate. For forty years, one man decided when the ice was safe for skating. Park Administrator Warren told Roy Fletcher and other impatient young hockey players he would take down the Keep Off signs only when the ice could support “a ten ton truck."
What ice thickness is safe? The Red Cross recommends 15 cm. (6 inches). For large crowds, the recommendation increases to 20 cm. (8 inches). Drilling test holes in several locations is essential because thickness varies according to water depth and movement.
Current City of Victoria policy is that no ice skating will be allowed on Goodacre Lake. Ever. Even if the ice measures 30 cm (12 inches) and could support a whole fleet of ten ton trucks, skating is prohibited. Staff will not measure ice thickness and certainly will not build welcoming bonfires.
Mike Leskiw, Parks Division Manager, stated: “I have checked with staff and we don't allow skating on the lake. As soon as ice forms we install the signs prohibiting skating. As we all know, ice on a lake can be very unsafe.”
Prohibiting ice skating does not, unfortunately, prevent accidents. Both skating fatalities in Park history--in 1915 and 1951--occurred when Keep Off signs were posted.
The Parks Committee banned ice skating completely for the first time in the winter of 1915. Staff broke ice along the edges of the lake to keep skaters away. Some residents protested that city measurements of ice thickness provided essential safety information to the public. Without official testing, they feared skaters would judge thickness by “looks” alone.
In January, sixteen year old Wallace Ward fell through the ice while skating with two friends at Goodacre Lake. An inquest ruled his drowning an “accidental death” and stated “the parks committee should provide more effective means for the protection of life by keeping some life-saving apparatus at the lake.”
The second fatality in Park history occurred thirty-six years later, on January 28, 1951. Seven teenagers, aged 14 to 18, were skating on the lake despite “No Skating” signs and prior staff warnings. The Daily Colonist reported: “Beacon Hill Park foreman Alex Johnston and the resident caretaker had been ordering persons off Goodacre Lake” earlier in the day, saying the ice was too thin for safe skating.
When one boy fell through the ice, the other six boys formed a human chain to reach him. More ice collapsed, plunging all would-be rescuers into the frigid water. Passing motorists, including a teacher and a cab driver, stopped to help. They managed to pull six boys out of the water, one at a time, with the aid of a plank. A policemen swam around the lake bottom searching for the seventh skater until he was told the boy had gone home.
Rescuers were proud and jubilant until 8:45 p.m. that evening, when a mother called police to report her son was missing. Charles O’Sullivan’s body was recovered from Goodacre Lake the next morning in shallow water near the lake’s north shore.
After the tragedy, life-buoys and ropes were installed along the lakeshore, more warning signs erected and more staff patrols carried out. The Parks Committee even considered filling in the Lake “to a depth of not more than three feet in any place,” an idea also discussed in 1928, 1931 and 1937.
An unusual deep long freeze could surprise us anytime. Placing ropes or other safety equipment along the shores of Goodacre Lake would be a wise precaution.
[The top photo of skaters on Goodacre Lake near Douglas Street was taken in 1946. BC Archives I-200632.]