Mark LaFlamme throws a stone while curling with members of the Pine Tree Curling Club at the William B. Troubh Ice Arena in Portland.

PORTLAND — On a late and bitterly cold Wednesday night in late January, Auburn school teacher Melanie Lee sat in the bleachers of a Portland arena, putting on her fancy shoes and waiting to go out on the ice.

It was 9:30 p.m. and the curlers hadn’t even gotten started. Once they hit the ice, they would be at it until around midnight, after which point Lee would go spend the night at her son’s house in Portland before driving back to Auburn in the morning for work.

You’ve got to wonder: What is worth all this on a late Wednesday in the middle of a frigid winter night?

The game of curling, my friends. For nearly four dozen men and women, at least, this 500-year-old game is worth all the long drives and weird hours.

“It’s just a really, really fun experience,” says Lee. “And the people are great.”

Pine Tree Curling Club President Derek Campbell, left, gives writer Mark LaFlamme a few tips before LaFlamme throws the stone at the William B. Troubh Ice Arena in Portland.

Ah, yes. The people. Every Wednesday night, roughly 40 of them have been making their journeys to the William B. Troubh Ice Arena in Portland as part of The Pine Tree Curling Club, which has been in existence since 2015.

They come when it’s cold outside. They come after long days at work. They come and play into the wee hours despite having to get up early the next day. For these men and women — young, old and in between — spending hours hurling heavy objects down the length of an ice rink isn’t a chore. It’s love.

“It’s strategic, it’s physical and it’s a very social activity,” says Dave Florig, a 64-year-old retired attorney from Philadelphia. “It’s competitive, but not hyper-competitive. No fighting, no taunting, none of that stuff. There’s a great sense of camaraderie.”

Not convinced? Here’s Dianne Ballon, a 65-year-old sound engineer who’s been curling for more than 10 years – since the days when not everybody knew what curling was.

“I just absolutely fell in love with it,” Ballon says. “It’s an amazing sport. It’s a passion, really. I can’t go without curling.”

Clearly there’s something about this sport – known only to a select few until the Olympics picked it up in 1998 – that compels people to keep coming back week after week no matter what. Which leaves us with just one small but important question.

Exactly what IS curling, anyway?

Dianne Ballon, right, John Scamman and Dave Peterson sweep the ice to make the stone go a little farther during a recent curling match at the William B. Troubh Ice Arena in Portland.

‘Boy, that looks like fun’

Most of us have seen at least clips of the curling action on the Olympic highlight reels. There they are, hunched men and women out on sheets of ice, frantically pushing their brooms back and forth ahead of what appears to be a large, polished rock in motion. Let’s be honest. It’s an odd vision, like a crazy menage a trois of bowling, shuffleboard and housekeeping.

Slow your roll, son. The official definition looks a little something like this:

“Curling is a sport in which players slide stones on a sheet of ice toward a target area, which is segmented into four concentric circles. Two teams, each with four players, take turns sliding heavy, polished granite stones, also called rocks, across the ice curling sheet toward the house, a circular target marked on the ice. The purpose is to accumulate the highest score for a game; points are scored for the stones resting closest to the center of the house at the conclusion of each end, which is completed when both teams have thrown all of their stones. The curler can induce a curved path by causing the stone to slowly turn as it slides, and the path of the rock may be further influenced by two sweepers with brooms who accompany it as it slides down the sheet, using the brooms to alter the state of the ice in front of the stone.”

Until 2015, the only organized group of curlers to be found was in Belfast, at the Belfast Curling Club, which has been around since 1959. That’s a long drive for anyone closer to central Maine, but plenty of people made the trip anyway because – do we really need to remind you of this already? – there’s just something about curling.

Kevin Donoghue is directing his thrower where to slide the stone during a curling match at the William B. Troubh Ice Arena in Portland. Donoghue is the “skip,” one of three positions on a curling team. “A good skip is thinking two or three shots ahead,” said Derek Campbell, president of the Pine Tree Curling Club.

Ballon used to make the 210-mile trip to Belfast two Saturdays out of each month to get her curling fix.

“That’s how much I love it,” she says.

Then, in 2015, the curling prayers of many were answered when Derek Campbell, a physical therapist, started the Pine Tree Curling Club, using available ice time at the Troubh Arena. Although the arena ice is not perfect – ice used for hockey is a far cry from the surface used for professional curling – for those in love with the sport or interested in checking it out, a home in Portland meant easier access to the game.

The response to the new club was almost immediate. When Campbell hosted a “Learn to Curl” event, dozens showed up to try their hands at the game they’d only seen on TV.

“I’d never curled. Never even knew about curling until I saw it on the Olympics,” says John Scamman, a 66-year-old Portland psychiatrist. “I said, ‘Boy, that looks like fun.'”

Scamman has been curling now for four years, since the founding of the club. All it took was that one try, he says, and he was all in.

“I was hooked immediately,” he says. “I couldn’t stop smiling out there. The fact that I was out there pushing that broom the way they did in the Olympics, it was just fun. It’s nice because you don’t necessarily need to have a lot of athletic ability to curl. You’ve got to have muscle memory and focus, but if you’re not a tremendously coordinated athlete, you can still curl. That’s particularly valuable to me.”

“It’s a very multi-faceted game,” says Gina French, of Portland, who has been involved in the club since the “Learn to Curl” event in 2015. “It’s fun and the camaraderie is great. But there’s also skill involved. You’ve got to be able to get yourself coordinated so you can get the stone to the other end. But it’s also teamwork. I tell my friends it’s like bowling, but everyone takes part in every shot.”

Brett Gabor, left, and Chris Cook bump fists before their curling match at the William B. Troubh Ice Arena in Portland.

Chess on ice

Before the start of each club night at the Portland arena, Campbell moves from one wooden box to another at the back of the rink, removing the 80 stones – those round pieces of polished granite – that live in the crates. Each stone weighs 44 pounds and costs around $200. Campbell and other club members use carts to wheel them onto the ice.

How did Campbell, a man with a full-time job and other commitments, end up being the curling savior for so many in the Portland area?

It was a fluke, mostly. Campbell and his wife, Jen, were living in Seattle in 2011 when they kind of stumbled on a curling club having a “Learn to Curl” event.

“I signed up for a league on the spot,” Campbell says. “You see it on the Olympics and you think, ‘Well that looks fun. I think I could do that.'”

Derek and Jen were able to curl in Seattle, but when they moved back home to Portland, it wasn’t going to be so easy. It was either make the long drive to Belfast a couple times a month or try to start a club and see what sort of response they got.

The response was huge. The “Learn to Curl” events filled up quickly. People had been watching curling on TV and, by gum, they wanted to try it.

“Every four years there’s this huge swell,” Campbell says. “There’s this extra interest in curling because of the Olympics.”

The Pine Tree Curling Club has roughly 50 members now, those ardent souls that show up Wednesday night after Wednesday night to hurl stones and frantically broom the ice. They’ve had kids as young as 12 and a woman who was 72 before she stopped curling.

“We’ve been very lucky,” Campbell says. “We have a very dedicated core and then there are a bunch of new people that come every year. The entire club is run by volunteers. The amount of commitment people has shown has just blown me away.”

The group is currently involved in an effort to expand the club into its own 17,000- to 20,000-square-foot building where members will have ice dedicated to curling and the luxury of saner hours. (See related story.)

Giving it a try

In the meantime, they just keep coming to Troubh Arena each Wednesday in spite of the late hours and less-than-predictable ice. In an effort to discover the crazy appeal of the sport, I tried throwing a few stones myself. Before I did so, I asked some of the members for advice. Was it easy? Was it hard?

“When we do Learn to Curls (events), they’re basically two hours long. By the time a person leaves, they usually feel pretty comfortable playing,” says Campbell. “You can learn to throw a curling stone in an hour, but then it’s time to dial in the correct way to do it.”

“Just do it and enjoy it and know that it’s not going to be perfect the first few times,” advises Melanie Lee.

“What’s difficult in teaching someone to deliver the stone is that there are so many factors involved,” says Ballon. “It sounds so complicated, but you’ll get it.”

Gina French of Westbrook plays for the curling team “Canadian Bacon.” (Daryn Slover)

So, I tried hurling a stone. Campbell showed me how to position my legs, how to hang on to the stone and how to prop myself up with a stabilizer as I lunged forward with the intention of sending that hunk of granite gliding toward the target on the other side of the rink.

I got the stone down the rink, sure enough, but I clearly was not able to exert any kind of control over it. I flung it harder than I should have. My form wasn’t stable enough where I could give the stone a little twist to dictate the course it would take. I had no strategy at all. If I had been throwing the stone in a live game, the results wouldn’t have been good.

“You have to be one or two steps ahead,” says Campbell. “There’s a ton of strategy. It’s called chess on ice.”

“Occasionally you have these exciting shots where the stone curls around right where it’s supposed to and knocks the other guy’s stone out,” Scamman tells me. “You have to know what the other person can do in order to decide where to try to put your stone. . . . Sometimes when you try to make it better, you can make it a lot worse.”

And brushing? Forget about it. I tried brushing ahead of the stone – which heats up the ice and makes the stone’s path a little slicker – but found that I had no idea how hard to brush or how fast. For all practical purposes, I was basically just sweeping at high speed, as though I were cleaning my kitchen after too much coffee.

The funny thing is, after dabbling in the game just a little bit, I found that I wanted to play a little more – maybe enough to actually get good at the game and become a part of this growing tribe of curlers.

There’s just something about it, you know.

“It’s awesome,” says French of the sport. “It’s one of those things where you find it or it finds you.”

Wendee Rogerson of Scarborough slides her stone down the ice during a curling match at the William B. Troubh Ice Arena in Portland recently.

Learn to curl

The Pine Tree Curling Club will host a “Learn to Curl” session April 13 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the William B. Troubh Ice Arena at 225 Park Ave., Portland. It’s planned as an introductory session for people who have never curled but always wanted to. For more information, visit pinetreecurlingclub.com

What is curling?

“Curling is a Scottish sport from the 1500s where you slide 42-pound stones down a sheet of ice about 150 feet long to land in a bull’s-eye. It’s a very social sport where the winners buy the losers a drink and the players call their own fouls. Even the top teams in the world are all friends with each other. It’s inclusive enough to allow people of all ages and ability levels to play. . . . The strategy is simple enough to get down in a couple hours, but it can be years to get the intricacies. It’s the most fun you can have with a broom on the ice!” — Derek Campbell, founder of the Pine Tree Curling Club of Portland

Where to find curling around Maine

The Rangeley Lakes Curling Club has been around for about four years. For the first few years, they were on such a budget, they used homemade stones – stainless steel bowls stuck together, filled with cement and plugged with a bent pipe to use as a handle. This season, they shelled out a few thousand dollars for 16 authentic curling stones. The group, roughly 20 members strong, curls on the town pond. For more information, visit the club page on Facebook.

Belfast Curling Club – the only center in Maine with ice dedicated to curling – opened officially in February 1959 on a site that had previously been flooded for outdoor curling by a group of enthusiasts. The group grew steadily over the years in both size and prestige. Now it’s considered one of the top curling sites in the country. According to the club’s website: “Three sheets of some of the finest ice in New England are the result of extensive renovations made in 1991, including insulation and controlled temperature in the ice house. An experienced committee meticulously maintains our ice using a state-of-the-art scraper and pebbler. Our well-lit ice is in use from November until early April.” Find out more at BelfastCurlingClub.org.

Pine Tree Curling Club has been meeting in the William B. Troubh Ice Arena in Portland since 2015. FMI: The Pine Tree Curling Club.com.

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