Locals chase prime conditions for backcountry skating

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Ice skaters cruise across a frozen mountain lake in December of 2015. (Courtesy of LJ McClellan)

Avalanche Lake in Glacier Park was perfect.

Crystal-clear ice capped the frigid waters below, blissfully free of snow and cracks. Two skaters darted across the pristine surface, skating backward briefly before effortlessly spinning forward, racing off toward the lake’s center.

December 14 was the kind of day backcountry ice aficionados dream about.

It was a drop-everything-and-go kind of day — conditions were that good.

“In any given winter, if you get five days of skating in, that’s a good winter,” said Steve Thompson, a Whitefish resident who manages the backcountry ice skating Facebook page, Wild Ice Montana. “You gotta have the right conditions and no snow on the ice — there’s a lot of factors that have to come into alignment.”

When those factors do align, skaters are treated to an otherworldly skating experience, in the quiet beauty of the natural world. Often Thompson and as many as 18 others, will trek out to a local lake for a game of pickup hockey, or to simply cruise around and say hello to the ice fisherman.

“It’s just a great excuse to get outside in some gorgeous places,” he said.

The Facebook page functions as a modern-day phone tree — members investigate lake conditions and report back to the group.

“Every lake, every creek ... they all freeze at different times. They all have different conditions, these little microclimates, and it’s hard to know until somebody goes there,” Thompson said. “Then they post it on Facebook and the word goes out.”

At least 2 1/2 of ice are preferred, he explained, and to make sure the surface is thick enough, he’ll don a pair of yak tracks and cut holes in the ice, starting from the shoreline and moving outward.

The best ice is that which hasn’t been subjected to the freeze-thaw cycle that came sometimes leave a hard layer on top, but slush below, and can also result in an uneven surface, making skating more difficult.

Due to inherent imperfections in natural ice, Thompson said hockey skates are preferred over figure skates. But solid ice and sturdy skates aren’t the only pieces of equipment necessary for a day on the ice.

Large spikes, called ice claws or safety spikes, which retail for about $10 are essential rescue tools to have on hand.

“If you’re skating alone and all of sudden you’re in the drink you can use these nails as ways to grab hold of the ice and pull yourself up,” Thompson said.

And Thompson knows first-hand what can happen when you don’t pack the spikes.

He was cross-country skiing at the time, but the scenario could have easily transpired on skates. It was a cold January day nearly 10 years ago, and Thompson diverted from his original plan to ski a network of Nordic trails in favor of exploring the Les Mason area of Whitefish Lake. Thompson and his dog headed onto the ice but stuck to the shore as he was without his usual cache of safety gear, including spikes and a hatchet for cutting holes.

After less than 10 minutes on the ice, Thompson suddenly realized he’d ventured farther into the lake than he intended and felt himself sinking into the water.

“It was very slow motion, no cracking or anything. It was a weak spot, an upwell in the spring

[and] all of a sudden I’m in the water,” he said. “I almost died. I came as close as you could get to dying without dying. I was in for 12 to 15 minutes.”

Thompson rid himself of one ski, but struggled to remove the other. Finally, after 10 minutes, both skis were off his feet. He placed them on top of the ice, hoping to distribute his weight and pull himself from the frigid water, but Thompson kept crashing through.

He was rapidly becoming hypothermic and his energy was fading.

“I was like, OK I’ve got enough strength to do this a couple more times and I was able to get up on top,” he said.

Thompson survived his chilly brush with death and hopes his tale can serve as a warning for skiers and skaters alike. If outdoorsmen and women take proper precautions, backcountry ice skating can be wonderful winter excursion for all ages. Some of his favorite spots include Stanton Lake in the Great Bear Wilderness, Whitefish Lake, Somers Bay, Spencer Lake off U.S. 93 and Finger Lake, just north of Upper Stillwater Lake.

“Part of the fun of it is not just being out in this really wild place …. but it’s the community that you have around it,” Thompson said. “Mostly it’s just the pickup, family, multi-generational hockey games. Those are the best memories.”

Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or mreiss@dailyinterlake.com.

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