Pickleball players cast long shadows under the January sun Monday at Belfast City Park. Fans of the sport have been braving cold weather and snow and ice on the courts to play this winter. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — On a frigid, icy January morning, the only sound echoing through the otherwise-quiet Belfast City Park was the “thwack” of a pickleball being lobbed back and forth over a net.  

At 18 degrees, it was so cold that aside from a couple of seagulls, the park was otherwise deserted. But the wintry temperature and the slippery footing weren’t enough to cast a chill on Belfast’s diehard pickleball enthusiasts, who are playing outside for their second winter in a row.

The outdoor games began because of the pandemic. But some players, at least, are growing to embrace the newly four-season nature of their sport.

“Isn’t it crazy? This is the hardiest group of people I’ve ever met in my life,” M.P. Bogan of Belfast said after she carefully picked her way down a snowy slope to get to the courts. “It’s just fun and invigorating. Refreshing. It’s such a silly fun game to begin with.”

“And it’s highly addictive,” Bill Carr of Belmont added.

That word — “addictive”— is one that midcoast pickleball players use a lot to describe their love of the sport, and may go a distance to explain why they are willing to don multiple layers of clothing and shovel and de-ice the courts in order to play in sub-freezing temperatures.

In Belfast, outdoor pickleball players have contended this winter with bitterly cold conditions and icy courts. David Hallbert, right, pours hot water on the ice as Linda Hurley, left, scrapes the ice away. Credit: Abigail Curtis | BDN

Pickleball is a game played with either two or four people that combines some aspects of tennis, ping-pong and badminton on a hard-surfaced court that is 20 feet by 44 feet. Players hit wiffle balls with paddles a little bit bigger than a ping-pong paddle back and forth across the net. According to USA Pickleball, the game is one of the fastest-growing sports, with more and more people both in the U.S. and in other countries playing it.

Though it is known as a sport for senior citizens, it is catching on with a wider swathe of the population, especially during the pandemic, as people search for safe ways to socialize outdoors. An estimated 4.2 million people played the game in 2020, according to a recent story in New York Magazine. 

In Belfast, the pickleball club got a permanent place to play in 2016, two years after forming at the Waldo County YMCA. That’s when city councilors approved converting one of the two basketball courts at Belfast City Park to four dedicated pickleball courts. In warmer weather, the pickleball courts see a lot of activity, with players congregating there daily.

The winters, though, used to be quiet on the park’s pickleball courts, with players decamping for heated, indoor locations. But beginning last year during the pandemic that changed, as people sought ways to feel safer while playing the game. They bundled up to play, weather permitting, two or three times a week.

“We’ve kind of turned pickleball on its head. We think of it as a southern sport, or a summertime sport,” David Hallbert of Belfast said. “But we’ve started playing it in the winter. Last winter, we started clearing off the courts and playing. We found it was quite pleasant.”

The Belfast club isn’t the only group to take it outside during harsh winter conditions. There are other Maine clubs that do, Hallbert said, and in Canada, some agile souls are known to play it on ice.

“You have a ski sweater and maybe a down vest on. It’s really very comfortable,” Hallbert said.

The Belfast group purchased a snowblower and several snow shovels, which they use to clear the courts after a storm. But this winter, with its surfeit of ice and the ongoing cold snap, has been more difficult.

  On a recent morning, players warned each other of the slippery spots on the courts, but at least one woman slid and fell anyway. She bounced up again, the smile still on her face. People who weren’t actively involved in a game worked to remove the ice. Hallbert brought a 30-cup coffee maker to heat water to melt the ice on the courts. As he carefully poured the steamy water on the ice, others used a scraper and a shovel to clear it off, then towels and sheets to blot up the remaining water.  

“I loved it last year,” Jennifer Kiernan said as she wielded the scraper. “This one is not so much fun. The circumstances are a lot more challenging. We’ve gone whole weeks without being able to play.”

But with the sun out, and the ice melted, the blue sky and the nearby ocean made an irresistible location for the game.

“I love it,” Linda Hurley said. “Just being out in the fresh air. It’s so fun.”