Finding the perfect skate is worth the search

48˚ NORTH STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAY BJORK

My favorite skating rink doesn’t have A roof, boards, fee or schedule because I choose a lake, pond and occasionally a river instead — where the ceiling might be a veil of clouds or blanket of fog and I can skate effortlessly for miles toward the horizon.

As far as a schedule, the key to skating these wild and wonderful places is when there is good ice, you skate. Mother Nature doesn’t take reservations, special requests or offer guarantees. She might flirtatiously dish up a batch of cold weather that transforms a lake into a shimmering mirror of ice – only to blanket it with snow with a toss of her head – snuffing out the shiny ice and hope for an epic skate.

That is one reason skating in wild places is so seductive, because the offering is fleeting, unpredictable and never, ever the same.

Swan Lake, Skating at our doorstep

When we discovered our Swan Lake property I imagined long summer days filled with swimming, boating and sitting lazily on the dock or by a campfire under a starry night. I pictured the lake being tucked in for winter under a blanket of snow. But when our first Swan Lake winter came, the ice came – and then came skating.

Our first skate on Swan Lake remains as clear in my memory as the ice we discovered that morning. I remember the feeling of wonder as I glided on ice so transparent that I could see the startled fish below me scatter like fireworks. A view usually blurred by the movement of water became clear through the ice window to the lake below.

Sometimes it’s not perfect ice that makes an epic skate – it can be the imperfect ice sprinkled with hoarfrost blossoms, dashed with milky wrinkles, or pressure fissures that form feather whips when water seeps through the ice and heaves into sheets of glass piled up on the shoreline. And then there are the sounds. An otherwise silent lake is filled with an ice symphony performed in a snow-muffled amphitheater with low kettledrum-like vibrations and higher drawn-out strums that sound like they came from a gigantic string instrument. The hauntingly beautiful sounds and sights create a surreal and transcendent experience that make a winter outing more than merely a skate.

Some of our most amazing skates have been on Swan Lake because we wake up at its front porch almost every day. The rhythms of the weather and climate have become a part of our lives and in the summer memorize the underwater landscape to guide safe ice-skating adventures in winter. We’ve experienced silky ice so smooth we could barely feel it under our skates as we made the 20-mile round trip up and down the lake, hockey games with family and friends who learned to skate by chasing a puck, and skating with our daughters in the shadows of sunrise before the school bus arrived only to later be cloaked by a pink sunset while it faded to gray at the end of a day.

Avalanche Lake, November 24, 2013

Fall weather in 2013 was dry and cold – the perfect ingredients for good ice. The lack of snow also allowed Glacier National Park’s Going-to-Sun Road to remain open to the Avalanche Lake Campground when it normally would be closed at Lake McDonald Lodge, making the Avalanche Lake Trailhead within reach for a winter outing. We headed to Avalanche Lake with our skates in tow on a November morning, led only by our speculation that the lake hadn’t frozen until after the first snow.

The two-mile trek along Avalanche Creek is normally spectacular, but today it was otherworldly, an already magnificent cathedral decked out for the holidays. Snow-flocked cedar branches bowed over the tumbling creek where icicle ornaments dangled into pools of water glistening in burgundy rock basins.

As we continued our trek to the lake the snow deepened and at the final rise we entered a winter wonderland, with the sun streaming golden ribbons through snow-laden evergreens and spattering glitter on the snow-covered ground. Silently we wondered if we would find the lake frozen and put to bed by the recent snowfall.

We broke out of the timber straining to see the lake and, like small children, our hearts lifted and we broke into smiles when we saw the navy ice dotted with feathery hoarfrost. We dropped onto a log bench and laced our skates in the shade of the mountain wall that surrounds Avalanche Lake. It was solar noon as we began circling the lake, but the sun skimmed the ridge and never found the lake that day, adding a sense of muted mystery as we skated in the mountain’s shadow. The shortest day was nearly a month away and the arc of the sun would still flatten more with each passing day, keeping most of the lake in darkness for the rest of winter.

We spotted two men returning from a trek along the shore and another couple arrived while we were skating along the shoreline, where we checked ice depth at natural pressure cracks or made our own with a hard whack of my husband Dewey’s hockey stick.  The ice was nearly six inches deep, giving us the confidence to stretch out and glide across the lake. We stopped on the opposite shore where we paused for lunch and to savor this splendid experience.

We closed the lake loop where our boots sat propped next to the log like stiff soldiers and took off our skates, lingering for a few minutes to look back at our skate tracks on the ice – our signature to this incredible skate.

Lake McDonald, February 9, 2014

A cold snap had gripped the area and the Glacier Park Lake McDonald webcam supported our suspicion that the lake had frozen over for the first time in more than a decade, which in our minds meant this window of opportunity might slam shut for years with a snowstorm.

The next morning I left with Dewey in the black of pre-dawn with skates and skis for an adventure yet to be discovered. Our car thermometer read -4 degrees as we headed up the Swan Highway and it continued to slide downwards. By the time we reached the park it was nearly 10 below. We stopped at Apgar Village to get our first glimpse of the lake – frozen, but snow-covered – not good for a skate. Our disappointment was tinged with relief as we climbed back into the warm car, hoping that the sunrise would pull the temperatures above zero while we drove farther up the lake.

When we arrived at Lake McDonald Lodge we had gained a few degrees, so we left the blast of the heater to a slap of frigid air, our clothes stiffening as we trudged noisily on stiff snow, past the lodge and to the boat launch.

We explored the varied terrain where winds had fractured the ice and pushed them into stacks of glass-like sheets rimmed in turquoise. In a nearby cove, waves of snow left loopy patterns on opaque ice. Dewey thumped his hockey stick to create a crack, revealing several inches of ice that thinned near the creek outlet to the south – a wet and chilly trap for someone who doesn’t understand ice.

While we paused before heading north away from the creek, a pressure ridge exploded, sounding like gunfire, first near Dewey, followed by another farther out on the ice. It sprayed ice crystals that scattered across the ice. We startled and then laughed at this ominous, but exhilarating event.

We walked a short distance to the north where the ice was thicker and there it was – the navy ice that usually means a phenomenal skate. We headed up the lake on clear, fast ice until the ice became rough and then snow-covered. A short skate, but one that would remain etched in our memories.

We returned to the car where we traded our skates for skis and then headed farther up the lake along the snowy shoreline, where we began a new adventure  – and yet another path of discovery.