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Disco skate nights bring community together

by MATT BALDWIN
Daily Inter Lake | February 28, 2024 12:00 AM

When Gabriel Layton looks out across the ice at Whitefish’s City Beach, he sees the realization of his vision to bring a little slice of joy to the community.

Layton has spent dozens of hours this winter clearing snow from Whitefish Lake’s frozen surface, and smoothing the ice with a homemade Zamboni he crafted from plastic tubs and PVC. The meandering skate trails and rink he has cleared are illuminated with colored lights, while a sound system playing mellow pop tracks provides a dash of disco vibes to the scene.

By the time dusk enveloped the lake last Sunday, dozens of families and couples had gathered to lace up their skates. Teenagers with hockey sticks chased each other across the rink, while younger kids learning to balance on blades carefully navigated the ice paths. One couple with particularly impressive skills twirled and glided their way from end to end as a rainbow of colors refracted off a flurry of snowfall.

It’s undoubtedly a labor of love for Layton, but something he’s happy to invest his energy into for local residents' enjoyment.

“It’s a fair amount of work, but I mean, everything in life is work,” he said Sunday as he unloaded a trailer full of equipment from his pickup parked on the City Beach boat ramp.

The payoff, he said, is seeing people use the ice rink he’s invested so much of his time and money into maintaining.

“People are coming out at like 10 o'clock at night and skating, and the guys come out to practice hockey," he said. "This other couple was just out skating together. And then I'm like, this is absolutely worth all of it.”

Raised in Eureka, Layton was living in Canada when he first discovered his joy of outdoor ice skating. He said the rink at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square was the inspiration for his efforts at City Beach.

“It was just so accessible for skating,” he said about the public rink in Canada. “You just go grab your skates.”

Layton moved back to Whitefish in 2018 to launch his own landscaping company, but soon found himself consumed by work. He was clocking 80 to 90 hours a week just to keep up when one of his clients recognized he was on the verge of burnout.

“He knew how hard I was working, but he's like, ‘What do you do for fun, Gabe? What do you do outside of landscaping? You can't do this forever. You're gonna burn out.’”

Layton didn’t have an answer at the time — he just wanted to make enough money so he could afford to keep living in the valley.

Then last fall, as he was driving past Spencer Lake west of Whitefish, it came to him.

“The lake had frozen over like glass — it was beautiful. And in that moment, I looked over and I saw people skating and immediately I had a flashback to Nathan Phillips Square. And I was skating on the ice … and I was like, that's what I did for fun."

By the time winter arrived he had his mind made up — he would build a community rink for Whitefish.

“I just made it,” he said, smiling. “I just made a rink.”

As word got out and more people started using the community rink, Layton kept adding more elements like lights, music and skate trails.

“I just wanted to recreate that feeling that I used to have [in Toronto],” he said.

Now in his second season maintaining the City Beach rink, about 50 people regularly join the weekend evening skates. Layton does not need a permit from the city since he’s not selling anything.

“This is free and that's why I knew it would work,” he said.

Eventually, he envisions offering skate rentals and bringing food vendors to the beach to offer hot chocolate or chili.

He said this season will go as long as conditions allow. If it’s cold enough for the lake to freeze, Layton will be out there every weekend, clearing the ice and bringing the community together.

An updated schedule is posted online at whitefishdiscoskate.com.

    People skate on a community rink at City Beach on Feb. 18, 2024. (Matt Baldwin/Whitefish Pilot)
 Casey Kreider 
 
 
    People skate on a community rink at City Beach on Feb. 18, 2024. (Matt Baldwin/Whitefish Pilot)
 Casey Kreider 
 
 
    Gabriel Layton on the community ice rink he created at City Beach in Whitefish on Feb. 18, 2024. (Matt Baldwin/Whitefish Pilot)
 
 
    Gabriel Layton skates on an ice trail he created at City Beach in Whitefish on Feb. 18, 2024. (Matt Baldwin/Whitefish Pilot)
 Casey Kreider