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County's ice skating rinks popular holiday attractions

DULUTH

When she puts on a pair of ice skates, 10-year-old Makayla Gaskin said she feels like she can do anything.

Last Saturday morning, Makayla was in a bad mood until she put on a pair of blue ice skates at the Duluth Town Green's Winter Wonderland ice rink. Then she just brightened up.

"Since I came here, seeing all these people having fun made me want to have fun," she said. "I just feel good when I skate."

Across Gwinnett County, kids of all ages are pulling on ice skates at three local outdoor rinks. Duluth, Lawrenceville and Buford all have their own tent-covered rinks, complete with Christmas lights, benches and chilly winter air.

Wayne Gaskin, Makayla's father, said his three children didn't believe him when he told them he could skate. The family came several times last year, and Gaskin said he didn't fall once. He brought them out again the first day they had out of school.

"It just brings people together to the Town Center," he said. "It gives us the feeling that we belong to Duluth and Duluth has something to offer."

Beth Gray, a Bethlehem resident and member of the Atlanta Single Hikers club, fell on the ice in Duluth minutes after she stepped onto it. But Gray - who said she's better at climbing mountains - hopped right back up again, holding on to the edge at first before slowly venturing towards the middle, her arms extended. She estimated it had been 40 years since she had last donned a pair of ice skates.

The ice in Lawrenceville was covered with a fine powder that 8-year-olds Brianne Lutz and Kaitlynn Juca said their grandfather, Snellville resident David Bernstein, liked to ball up and drop down the back of their coats. The girls were practicing their twirls - Kaitlynn said she might want to be an Olympic skater some day - and talking about the next time they would come back to the rink.

"Every year, I want to at least go here once," Kaitlynn said. "I want to make it a tradition."

Bernstein brought his grandchildren last year, the first that the rink had been open. He said they closed the rink the first time they came, staying on the ice from

5 p.m. until the managers shut it down.

"It's a great way for them to burn off energy," he said. "It's stuff they don't get to do all the time, it's something very special for them. ... They've been looking forward to it for about a month."

Duluth rink manager Martin Minschwaner said the Winter Wonderland is popular for dates as well as families. A lot of area kids come back several times during the season, he said, and he's even run out of the 15 pairs of skates he has in each of 20 sizes some particularly popular nights.

Minschwaner said the skill level of skaters varies, with a lot of people who have never set foot on the ice before thinking that it'll be just like roller blading. They soon end up with their bottoms on the ice.

People ask him all kinds of questions about the rink, Minschwaner said, including how the ice stays frozen when the winter weather in Georgia is often in the 40s, or even higher.

The trick is a series of pipes than run propylene glycol under the ice, a chemical that helps keep it cold. It usually takes three or four days for the ice to form at first, he said, and then the rink is rewatered every night to keep it smooth.

In Lawrenceville, manager Jason Walburn said the rink ran out of the chemical before the ice could completely freeze. It had to be completely redone, which set the Lawrenceville opening back until Dec. 15. For three days, they offered free skating to make up for it.

Walburn said the outdoor rink feels like skating on a pond, and gives people a reason to come to downtown Lawrenceville.

Rachel Davis and Michelle Smith, members of the Crossroads Community Church's singles fellowship group, agreed. Davis said she hadn't been to Lawrenceville square in a while, but planned to come back to the area.

"It's a great idea and a great way to introduce people to downtown," she said.

But Smith said the best part of the evening wasn't the hot chocolate, the inflatable waving Santa Claus or the bright Christmas tree across the square.

"It's just acting like a kid again, laughing," she said. "Trying to stay on the skates."