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Chasing Wild Ice
Untamed mountain lakes, rivers transport ice skaters to a romantic winter wilderness
Steve Thompson skates with friends on a frozen Spencer Lake west of Whitefish. - Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
A natural winter alchemy is at work grooming Montana’s wild ice, the season’s cold, clear temperatures freezing mountain lakes and rivers slow and smooth, their surfaces polished to a glassy, manicured sheen.

Untamed, uncultivated, indigenous ice has been at its rare best in Northwest Montana this pre-winter, due to an intricate interplay of temperature, pressure, humidity, wind and water.

In simpler terms, the final stretch of November brought the perfect recipe of cold temperatures and clear blue skies. The endlessly satisfying result is a natural looking glass revealing a watery underworld where shoals of fish glimmer and flash and turtles burrow into muddy dens below gliding skate blades.

Blanchard and Spencer lakes in Whitefish; the Stillwater River and Ashley Creek; Johns and Avalanche lakes in Glacier National Park; Spoon Lake along the North Fork Flathead River. They’ve all been wearing gleaming coats of native, translucent ice.

Don Scharfe, owner of Kalispell’s Rocky Mountain Outfitter, has been bagging wild ice for years, and said this season stands out as one of the best in 10 years.

On a recent weekday morning, Scharfe and a handful of fanatics ice-skated from Whitefish to Kalispell on the Stillwater River, packing skate ski poles, ice axes and a throw bag for the 19-mile trip, which they covered in just a few fast, frictionless hours.

“The last time we skated that stretch when it was really good was eight or 10 years ago. But this year is really good,” Scharfe said.

In the Flathead Valley, there’s a loose-knit community of backcountry skaters who take advantage of the narrow winter window, when the mercury drops but the snow hasn’t flown in earnest, and they chase wild ice.

They seek the still solace and cold quiet of an icy luster beaming beneath a bright blue sky, or of a moonlit mirror of feral ice, flanked by silhouetted spruce forests beneath a glittering mantel of starlit night.

They stay warm beside shoreline campfires and by pressing thermoses of hot libations against fleece-clad tummies; or by skating and shuffling between makeshift hockey goals; or by carving broad, looping turns and leaving behind the lingering longhand of cursive, a silver script of a skate blade connecting the filigreed text of hoar frost blossoms.

“This is probably the best wild ice year we have had in a decade,” local writer Doug Chadwick said after a recent jaunt to Avalanche Lake in Glacier National Park.

“You get up there and your first thought, regardless of whether you have skates, skis or a Thermarest to sit down on, is that this is just a wonderful place to be,” he continued. “The sun is rocketing off the south-facing crystallized cliffs of Mount Cannon, there’s fox sign and marten sign around. What more could a guy ask for? And then you realize that you get to put on skates and make loops around this mountain bowl. It’s got to be as close as you can get to floating without a parachute. You’re just a circling pair of eyes.”

Steve Thompson skates with friends on a frozen Spencer Lake west of Whitefish on Nov. 26. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon


The season for chasing wild ice is a short one due to the rare requisite combination of cold, clear air along with a wind-scoured surface, and by the time this article is published the conditions may have changed drastically. But every day is different, and upcoming freezing temperatures may push water up through cracks and fissures and produce a new gleaming layer of ice.

Ice enthusiast Steve Thompson even established a Facebook page, Wild Ice Montana, to keep locals apprised of the conditions and provide tips and updates about ice-skating on public-access water across the state.

Already this year, Thompson has skate-hunted on Stanton Lake and staged rousing games of hockey on Spencer, or played “hockey ball” with the dogs.

“The wild ice season falls within a very small window and it changes quickly,” Thompson said. “Right around Thanksgiving is usually the best, when there’s a cold spell and a high pressure system like what we’ve had recently and it hasn’t been snowed on. This is the best it’s been in years.”

Once the snow falls and the ice rots it’s time to hang up the skates. But, as ice aficionados like Chadwick are careful to remind us, anything can happen.

“If we got enough rain on top of the skiff of snow we had, then sometimes it melts into an even better glaze. And when the ice freezes thick enough over shallow sections of water it will force water up through cracks and that can end up looking like a Zamboni went over it. So keep those skates sharp. Where else can you skate around in a mountain bowl staring at the Crown of the Continent?”
 
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