The winter sport of iceboating has started making a comeback in the Flathead thanks to a Lakeside man whose handcrafted “mini skeeters” are gaining local and international attention.
During business hours, John Eisenlohr owns and operates Lakeside Cabinetry Inc. After hours, the business doubles as a workshop where he builds one-of-a-kind ice boats, also known as mini skeeters.
Mini skeeters resemble small sailboats mounted on ice rudders or skates. Their sails harness gusts blowing across a lake to send sailors flying along the ice at highway speeds.
Conditions must be just right for the sport, and Eisenlohr said he and his fellow ice boaters might be lucky to get a dozen good days a year.
Local ice can be even harder to come by, according to Eisenlohr, and he and his friends often travel several hours to find ice thick enough and wind strong enough for a good ride.
Over the last 20 years, Eisenlohr has sailed the ice on Flathead Lake only a handful of times and has driven as far as Fort Peck for better conditions.
“Iceboating is really pretty magical, but it’s really hard to get the conditions,” Eisenlohr said.
Lately, however, conditions on Flathead Lake have been above average, Eisenlohr said, and he and his group had what he considered their best ice day ever at Big Arm State Park over the last weekend in February.
Aboard their mini skeeters, the men zipped back and forth across and 0.9 mile stretch of “Hollywood,” or perfect ice, with winds of up to 30 miles per hour pushing them to speeds of up to 64 miles per hour.
Had there been more room, Eisenlohr said, he could have gone faster.
SINCE BUILDING his first iceboat in 2014 for personal use, Eisenlohr’s designs have inspired other locals to build their own with his help.
After receiving multiple inquiries about his boat and where to get one like it, Eisenlohr began drawing up designs for potential buyers and creating step-by-step instruction videos on YouTube to help even novice boat builders construct their own custom mini skeeters.
His designs sell for $70 each and can be adapted for either iceboating or land sailing by replacing the skates with wheels.
To date, he has sold 90 sets of plans to international buyers, the most recent of which was from Russia.
“It’s been really fun,” Eisenlohr said. “I’ve met people all over the world.” His unique designs and videos gained enough exposure to catch the eye of Olympic officials in Europe, who recently contacted Eisenlohr, asking to review his design as a potential candidate for new Olympic land sailing vessels.
According to Eisenlohr, land sailing would qualify as a demonstration sport rather than a competitive Olympic event. But still, he said, the recognition was “pretty cool.”
A vessel made from scratch costs between $3,000-$4,000 and takes Eisenlohr around 100 total hours of labor to complete.
He learned the trade from his father, who worked as a boat builder during the ‘80s and taught Eisenlohr and his brother the craft of woodwork.
Eisenlohr started off land sailing at 9 years old on a vessel similar to those he now creates.
When Eisenlohr moved from California to Montana 23 years ago, he ventured onto the ice to try his hand at a sport adapted to the winter landscape.
Since he debuted his own boat, interest in the sport has grown locally to include around eight ice boaters in the Flathead area.
“You’re kind of in nature’s element with ice boating,” Eisenlohr said. “It’s the adrenaline and the camaraderie, you and all your buddies zooming around out there.”
Eisenlohr said he hopes to have enough participants soon to start a local regatta and host races for those interested in taking their game to the next level.
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.