Boom and echo

An appreciation of a beautifully shitty pre-fab skatepark.

Boom and echo

Blue is not what you want. A clear blue sky means heat. Another afternoon of your summer spent suffering. If you’re lucky, stray whisps of clouds will meander across the sky into the sun’s path. Those brief moments of relief are when the skatepark in Lac La Biche, Alberta, becomes tolerable enough to use.

Devoid of shade and dotted with pre-fabricated metal ramps that become frying pan-hot from June through September, the hollow, booming structures that comprise this place echo across the rest of Dumasfield Park and into the surrounding neighbourhood if you so much as roll onto their surface. You’ll find similar facilities tucked into the corners of communities around the world. Products of an era where a marriage of  ignorance, convenience, and limited budgetary expenditure led to a surge of low-cost, low-quality skateparks that had innumerable municipal governments reddening their backs with self-congratulatory jobs well done.

The Lac La Biche skatepark — my hometown park — is emblematic of the trend. Its original iteration, installed some 25 years ago, held an obstacle one could aptly describe as Modern Tech Deck. A prohibitively steep and slender bank led to a tabletop that reached head height and was flanked by two rounded ledges that went across and down. Its far side was a three-flat-three stair set that was impossible to gather the required speed to attempt.

A close approximation.

It would later be replaced by a pair of relatively decent ledges that remain to this day. Accompanying them is a flatbar loosely affixed to the ground — there used to be another before it up and left — a large flat bank, and a stunted tabletop that doesn’t allow one to pop over it or onto the ledge or rail lining its respective edges with any degree of certainty.

The main attraction, however, is the quarterpipe. Once a deep red, like the rest of the obstacles, it faded with time. Most of the colour on its face is gone after two-and-a-half decades of wheels moving up and down. Here is where I first learned to drop in. Well, technically, here is where I first ate absolute shit attempting to drop in before learning how to drop in. Then, the park was brand new, its concrete pad gleaming. It was the first ramp I’d seen in person; the concept of “transitions” or “embankments” had been purely hypothetical up to that point while growing up in rural Alberta.

Just lean forward, pussy. My older brother instructed as I stood on the lip, skateboard in place. It seemed simple enough. Much easier than the time he nearly convinced me to ride my board off the red-shingled roof of our family home to the driveway below. Mercifully, a neighbour saw our idiocy unfolding and yelled at us until we climbed back down the ladder we’d leaned against the stucco siding of the house. Still eager to impress, I leaned forward. I have no clear recollection of what happened next beyond a faint memory of agony and a struggle to hold back tears.

Sometime later, I’d figure it out. By then, my childhood friend Dylan had also got a Hobie Da Cat complete from the local sporting goods store. This led to a summer’s worth of discovery as we were certain we’d invented an entirely new class of tricks, which consisted of us doing axle stalls in the quarterpipe and seeing how many different ways we could grab our boards before coming back in.

The hours spent and friendships forged in places like this are at once universal and hard to fully comprehend. This crude approximation of a skatepark still managed to excel at its job as an extracurricular host, refuge, and proving ground. A hyper-local culture developed here. Slang was adopted, evolved, and forgotten. Kids found and lost themselves while in search of who they wanted to be. When I think about rolling into the big metal bank to hit the big metal quarterpipe, I can feel my bare flesh sticking to the ramps in peak August heat and hear the crash of metal trucks on metal edges carrying over the park. Is it normal for that to make your eyes well?

This summer, my partner and I visited my hometown for a cousin’s wedding. It had rained the whole drive up, a right miserable trip. Still, the first place I pulled into wasn’t my uncle’s, where we were due to stay so we could drop off our things and relax after hours on the road, but instead, the parking lot of the skatepark. I watched the rain pelt the ramps. It had been over ten years since I’d heard them shout under my feet, and recent chatter led me to believe I might never hear them again.

The county had finally committed to building a new skatepark. Something modern. Concrete. Down by the lake. That meant the old one would be removed. The pre-fab ramps that were apparently only intended to be temporary would finally, decades later, become just that. The sanctuary of my youth gone. Which is why I brought my board. I needed to learn one last trick on the quarterpipe, a farewell of sorts.

The morning of the wedding, the rain stopped, and we returned to the park. The concrete pad was covered in rocks. Not the normal but no less annoying few pebbles your wheels might stop on, but what looked to be a calculated spread of stones. Considering how loud the ramps are, sabotage wouldn’t be surprising or, honestly, uncalled for. After a time spent kicking my runway clear, I climbed to the top of the big bank and dropped in — that familiar boom and echo. A childhood spent making noise came back to me as if we’d never grown apart. Unfortunately, the trick I wanted to do was not as forthcoming, and we had to pack it in to prepare for the ceremony.

The next day, we returned. The sun beat down as mercilessly as it ever had. In her infinite patience, my partner found the one area of the park not in direct sunlight and played sudoku as I struggled to say goodbye. This was my last opportunity before we headed home, and I was getting anything but close. I tried to reconcile with myself. If I didn’t get the trick, that would be okay. The experience was what I was after. Seeking such selfish satisfaction was gluttonous, anyway. Sinful, probably. Just let it be. The memories would sustain me. There will always be the axle-stall-stalefish-front-wheel-grab I invented at nine years old to hold close to my heart.

Then, about 80 minutes into what had devolved into an all too familiar suffering, I rode away. My partner squealed. I exhaled. The sound of the hollow metal ramp rang out. This was what this place had always given me and exactly what I wanted from it that day. Somewhere to go with my joys and frustration, where cruel uncertainty and flickers of opportunity do a silly little dance as I become increasingly dehydrated.

I’ll miss these beautiful, shitty ramps and what they were for me and for those I’ve known. But, when the park is finally quiet, I’m sure we’ll find our exhaustion and relief somewhere else. We always do.

Finally, Jesus Christ.