A diary of years spent on ice around Northwest Montana

Story and photography by Kay Bjork
A s summer slips away, boats disappear, docks are floated to shore, seasonal cabins grow dark and the lake becomes nearly silent, like a deserted Main Street in an abandoned gold rush town.

It is always hard to let go of the famous summers in Northwest Montana, but winter on the lake offers its own kind of magic in a landscape that is constantly shifting and transforming with new snowfall and nature’s dramatic and astoundingly beautiful ice formations.

Many view the lake as a seasonable place enjoyed while basking beneath a hot summer sun or cloaked by a magical mist during an early morning fishing trip, but some of my favorite and most memorable moments on lakes have occurred in the winter.

Even though I live on Swan Lake, my experiences have not been confined to my own backyard as I wander and explore other lakes in the Swan and Flathead valleys. Whether on foot, snowshoes, skis or skates, there are always surprises and discoveries that are intensified by more extreme weather and temperatures. It takes more effort and a literal “pull-up-the-bootstraps” effort to get out in cold weather, but winter’s treasures are ever changing, making the hunt even more enchanting in a winter wonderland that might include a garden of hoarfrost blossoms, stacks of ice glass, jewel-studded logs or a wind-sculpted snow blanket.

Flathead Lake, December 12, 2009 Glazed Over

We are driving through Bigfork, and the sun lies low in the sky as we near the shortest day of the year. I gaze out across Flathead Lake, where the last of the sun glints on strands of ice forming on the glassy surface. I especially appreciate winter sunsets when nature takes out her coloring crayons to transform a nearly black and white world, so instead of going home, I decide to stop at Wayfarers State Park. We park the car and head to the cliff near the boat launch, where we discover rocks coated with ice like glazed donuts with pink frosting. I skip to thoughts of summer when the air is filled with the clamor of motors and the happy shrieks and splashing sounds of children playing in the lake. Now the excitement lies in the solitude of nature’s winter masterpiece.

February 1, 2015 Let There Be Light

I wake up to another monochromatic winter day. Craving brightness, I head to the north shore of Flathead Lake where the sky wraps around you with light that is magnified as it reflects off water, snow and ice. We trudge through the spongy marsh area as the sky brightens and the sun glows behind filmy clouds hanging like a sheer curtain over a window. I spot an eagle in a nearby snag, and below I see grass flattened by deer bedding down the night before. We reach the lake, where the ice has formed and reformed with pieces that have now relocked into one piece, like a jigsaw puzzle. The ice sits on top of sand, taking away the danger of breaking through, so we set out for a walk on the lake. When we notice a flock of swans at the edge of the ice, gliding silently through the water, we head in the other direction, not wanting to disrupt the delicate cadence of this peaceful day.

Swan Lake, January 8, 2015 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Work…

We sink into our leather recliners watching the morning news. I wrap my fingers around a mug of hot coffee seeking warmth while the woodstove crackles its promise to warm a chilly house cooled by sub-zero temperatures. My computer hums in the loft above me, bidding me to add my tap, tap keyboard rhythms. Instead I head out the door with my husband at first light. The cold that slaps us in the face only encourages us to head farther down Swan Lake in search of good ice. We park at a pullout along the highway and scramble down a steep slope where an ice prairie stretches shore to shore. We plop into a snow bank to put on our ice skates and then glide to the middle of the lake, feeling a sense of suspension as we are surrounded by an expanse of ice and sky. And then the sun explodes over the Swan Range like a silent firework celebrating winter.

January 8, 2013 Swan Song

Frozen. It is one of those days when the world feels locked in the frigid embrace of winter. I tug my scarf up over my face to shield me from the below-zero morning temperature and head down to the lake. The lake seems to be breathing as fog escapes from a sliver of open water surrounding an island. And then the lake speaks — a wave of sound that is punctuated by pops and low vibrations created by the shifting and heaving pressure of growing ice. It sounds like an uneven symphony, maybe musicians warming up for a concert. After a few more rumbles and squeaks, they put their instruments down, and the lake lies quiet once again. Frozen.

Holland Lake, January 1, 2015 One More Time

We just spent hours skiing in the Lindbergh Lake area, complete with a campfire lunch, and the sun is nearly skimming the Mission Mountains. A little weary from the cold, as well as the uphill climb and challenging downhill ski, we settle into the car and turn up the heat and the music. I am loving my seat heater, but my daughter Risa isn’t done yet and suggests, “Let’s stop at Holland Lake for the sunset.” We plod through snow to reach the lake as the sky begins to glow. We spot a skier headed up the lake and a pair of snowshoers who wave and continue along the shore. I watch as the sun disappears and the sky turns pink, and then the lake falls into shades of gray. A perfect bookend to our day. Now we can go home.

Horseshoe Lake, November 22, 2014 Puppy Play

Horseshoe Lake is a small lake in Ferndale with great Swan Range sunsets and is one of the first lakes to freeze over to provide us with a skating rink. This year we have a new puppy and are eager to introduce her to the ice. We hop on skates and she eagerly follows. Her first sprint ends up in a face plant, and then she explodes into a happy run that ends in a long skid, which seems to delight her as she repeats the process again and again. Kids and dogs — their excitement and energy let us experience great things in a fresh way when something very familiar suddenly seems brand new.