Nature’s Zamboni

Gleaming ice arrives in the Crown of the Continent as a rare pre-winter treat for skating and pond hockey

By Tristan Scott
A skater on Spencer Lake. Beacon File Photo

Nature’s Zambonis are hard at work grooming and gleaming Northwest Montana’s wild ice this pre-winter season, and skaters, amateur pond hockey players and underwater turtle-gazers are rejoicing on its translucent surfaces.

Untamed, uncultivated and free-range, wild ice is a phenomenon that occurs due to an intricate interplay of temperature, pressure, humidity, wind, and water.

Often occurring in the final stretch of November, wild ice depends on cold temperatures and clear blue skies. The 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.

Beginning around Thanksgiving Day, reliable reports began rippling across the Flathead Valley about wild ice on Spencer and Woods lakes in Whitefish, Spoon Lake along the North Fork Flathead River and Stanton Lake along the Middle Fork Flathead River.

They’ve all been wearing gleaming coats of native, translucent ice, beckoning backcountry skaters seeking the still solace and cold quiet of glittering ice crystals and blossoms of hoar frost underfoot.

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 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, or a silver script of a skate blade.

They 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.

In years past, other lakes that have gathered wild ice are Blanchard Lake in Whitefish, the Stillwater River and Ashley Creek, and Johns and Avalanche lakes in Glacier National Park.

Longtime local ice enthusiast Steve Thompson, who recently relocated from Whitefish to Butte, recently posted a special Wild Ice Montana production on his Wolverine News Network YouTube page depicting “a motley, intergenerational crew converged on an obscure lake in northwestern Montana for an impromptu game of Thanksgiving Day pond hockey.”

“The scene is chaotic here,” Thompson reports in his Turkey Day dispatch.

Sources close to the raucous round of hockey speculate that the footage was filmed on Spoon Lake, but Thompson would neither confirm nor deny those reports.

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, particularly with snow in the forecast.

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.

Editor’s Note: For tips on where to find wild ice, visit the Wild Ice Montana page on Facebook. Please confirm that ice is safe before venturing forth as conditions are variable and can change quickly.