People ice skate on Evergreen Lake in 2013. (dalioPhoto via Flickr)

By Seth Boster, The Gazette

EVERGREEN — Anyone who’s lived here long enough has sweet memories of the lake.

Sweet, like the drink John Ellis remembers. It was concocted in the old warming hut, that log cabin still standing along the shores that freeze for an ice skating tradition dating back to 1928, when the dam was finished.

“Like Dr. Pepper, but you made it yourself,” says Ellis, the white-bearded town Santa who was born in a barn around these hills west of Denver in 1947. “Coke and cherry and 7 Up, and we mixed them all together.”

Pam Lindquist remembers that warming hut. “The cigarette smoke and smell of wet, wool socks,” she says.

She remembers those nights after school, skating until someone’s parents arrived for pick-up. Her parents skated before her, among neighbors in their ties and wool skirts. There was fishing, too.

“You look out there now, and you see ice fishermen all over,” Ellis says. “It’s another world.”

The anglers, of course, share 55-acre Evergreen Lake with several others seeking memories in this idyllic valley.

Now, rather than the hut, the meeting place is a building big enough for weddings and a rental shop. Now, it’s not uncommon for a couple thousand people to skate the lake on busy days, managers say. Locals and the growing masses of Denver converge at what is billed as North America’s largest, groomed outdoor rink.

Heart Cameron does the grooming from the driver’s seat of a Zamboni he equipped with a Volkswagen engine.

“It’s as real as ice skating gets I think,” Cameron says. “You’ve got the mountains, the trees. It’s so classic, romantic. It’s how it used to be, the real deal.”

Nostalgic for some. To others, it’s all too representative of Colorado’s changing recreation landscape.

The lake is still the town “centerpiece,” says Kendra Head, who grew up skating here and now works for Evergreen Park and Recreation District. It’s still the scene of “salty dogs,” as the hockey-playing old-timers are called, duking it out before celebratory beer. Whiskey and bacon has accompanied bike races across the ice.

But the lake is not quite what it used to be, Head says. It’s not always easy to park. As lots fill, shuttles ferry visitors from off-site.

“It’s kind of heartbreaking in a way, because we’ve lost that small-town feel,” Head says. “Even though (the town) needs to make money, it also kind of destroys that small-town feel.”

But pride in the landmark remains. Look no further than Cameron, the dreadlocked man with Native blood and a name bestowed upon him in a sweat lodge. He considers it an honor to tend to the “soul” of town — that’s why he’s been doing it for the better part of 21 years.

“It’s a big thing for us,” Cameron says.

By us, he means his few fellow crew members who take to the frozen lake in the middle of the night. They take advantage of the freezing temperatures and spray water under the stars, filling any cracks and crevices and strengthening the surface. (To hold the Zamboni, at least 16 inches of ice is preferred.)

“Twenty-degree days, they’ll probably be in T-shirts, because they’re so used to the cold, cold, cold,” Cameron says.

In recent winters, they’ve been wishing for colder.

When Cameron started two decades ago, he expected the lake to start freezing in late October. Now he expects later in November. Where the old hope was to open the ice for skating by mid-December, the hope is increasingly more like New Year’s Eve. That was the case this season.

In a first, Cameron saw portions of ice melt in December, rather than consistently freeze. That was due to unrelenting warmth and sunshine. It’s a perilous sight, considering a not-so-distant tragedy. In 2015, a driver tending to the ice fell through and died.

“I hate to say it,” says Jarred Lilyhorn, a supervisor with the park district, “but I think we might not have an ice skating season here. I don’t know when, but I think over time, if we can’t get in front of climate change, we will not have an ice skating season here.”

In Lindquist’s childhood memories, the skating seasons were much longer. Now winters feel warmer, the summers hotter — partly why Fourth of July fireworks don’t happen at the lake anymore, for fire danger. The other reason why that tradition ended was because of crowds. Traffic was such that town officials foresaw disasters in the case of emergencies.

But Lindquist is happy to greet everyone. She greets them at the lake house, her post with the park district.

“In all reality, this is the people’s lake,” she says. “We know when people come here, their lives are benefiting because of what’s here.”

At a lake this size, there’s room for everyone, Ellis says. It’s not the same, but he still finds some of the old joy from his memories. Still finds inspiration from the views and the sunrises and sunsets.

“You can’t go too wrong,” he says.