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Making the most of the cold weather

When life hands you lemons, the saying goes, make lemonade, and when winter hands you a week of temperatures near zero degrees, make ice rinks.

Christopher Taggart of Amherst was doing exactly that in recent days, getting ready for Saturday’s sixth annual Tim Hortons Backyard Classic. As one of the pond hockey tournament’s organizers, Taggart could not have asked for better weather – unlike the past two mild winters when anyone trying to play hockey outdoors was on very thin ice indeed.

The 250 athletes, and their parents and siblings, who came out for the event were among many in the area embracing the best of winter by sledding and skiing, sliding and snowshoeing, on a day that many agreed “wasn’t really that bad out.”

At Reinstein Woods Environmental Education Center in Depew, this year’s Winter Wonderland in the Woods celebrated something that had been missing from previous editions: winter.

“This is pretty nice,” said Sandy Sywak, who came with her husband and granddaughter, Alexis Sywak. “It isn’t our first time here, but there was no snow for this last year, or the year before.”

Alexis was experimenting with snowshoes, fitted for her by a fellow dressed like a polar bear, although he looked more sheep-ish than ferocious. Sharp-eyed toddlers also made friends with a penguin person strolling the grounds.

On the other side of the center’s lodge, novices were learning the glide-and-slide rhythms of cross-country skiing, trying to get the hang of lifting their heels, unlike the rigid downhill style. The practice skiing was one of about a dozen activities at the free celebration of all things wintry. (On non-Wonderland days, it is only $5 to rent skis, poles and boots at Reinstein.)

Robin Bobowicz of Derby, who said she also likes the cross-country trails at Byrncliff Resort in Varysburg, was introducing her grandsons Andrew and Nathan Heider to the sport. And even when Andrew was standing in his sock (he had taken off his snowboot to check his size for the ski boots), no one was complaining about being cold.

With snowflakes falling gently through the trees and over the trails, Bobowicz said, “I love it in here. It’s not windy, it’s gorgeous!”

Nearby, Mike Adriaansen was explaining the fundamentals of ice fishing to visitors, demonstrating some of the gear and talking about how a solid ice cover can affect the fish. Small fish, like those in the pond where Adriaansen had bored a hole for kids to dip a line, survive pretty well, but big fish in small ponds could die from lack of oxygen if the ice lasts too long.

It might be trouble for big fish, but a nice smooth ice cover was a blast for all the kids at the Tim Hortons tournament, on Wehrle Drive near Transit Road. The friendly competition benefits Hasek’s Heroes this year, a city hockey program based at Riverside Ice Rink. Taggart said he and Nick Penberthy started the pond hockey fundraiser six years ago in their backyards and have seen it grow from there, with players this year ranging from Mites (age 8) to college players and older, competing on four beautiful-looking rinks. Each game lasted 20 minutes.

“There is nothing better than outdoor pond hockey,” Taggart said. “It gets the game back to its roots.”

Riley Fitzinger was among those playing for the first time, attracted by the great venue and real outdoor rinks.

Being outdoors also meant being in the snow.

“They’re having a hard time keeping the ice clean,” said Riley’s dad, Ryan Fitzinger, as the flakes started coming down harder.

“It’s actually a shoveling contest with hockey in between,” is how Holly Nagel’s dad put it while his daughter was racing around the rink. It was her first year at the tournament, too.

Riley’s grandmother, Elaine Imiola, was philosophical while taking a break in the warming hut between games.

“My husband said this morning, ‘They’re going to cancel it, aren’t they, because of the weather?’ and I said, ‘No, this is winter!,’ ” and she laughed. “This is fantastic, and it’s fun for the kids.”

She recalled her own childhood, and winters a lot like this one.

“I lived in Cheektowaga and they always made an ice rink behind the school,” Imiola said. “We used to go skate every single night. We would walk there, and then we’d have to walk home,” frozen toes and all.

There are more chances for winter fun today, with Erie County’s Winterfest 2014 at Chestnut Ridge Park from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the 20th Annual Penguin Run 5K. Registration is $35 and opens at 9 a.m. at Classics V Banquet Center, 2425 Niagara Falls Blvd., Amherst. The race begins at 11 a.m. and concludes with a post-party at Classics V. Proceeds benefit Cradle Beach. There is also a 1-mile family fun walk/run for $10.

Runners will want to bundle up. Today should be colder and cloudy, with gusty winds but less snow, according to the National Weather Service.

Meteorologist Aaron Reynolds said Saturday, “We’ll see the temperatures start to drop tonight. By Tuesday, we can expect a high of 5 degrees, possibly 10, with overnight lows below zero.”

By the end of the week, he said, temperatures could be back in the mid-20s.

Looking a week ahead to Feb. 2, Groundhog Day, Reynolds said the long-range outlook shows a likelihood of cloud cover.

That could be good news for the winter-weary, who would rather the little fellow not see his shadow, traditionally a prediction of six more weeks of winter.