There’s been such excitement in the air here, it’s almost palpable. Social media platforms are a-buzz with effusive posts and comments about the skating conditions we are currently experiencing.
It’s a once in a decade occurrence in these parts. Ice forms PERFECTLY… with a mirrored, black surface so smooth you’d think a giant-sized Zamboni had passed over it countless times.
No snow has accumulated on the wind-swept surface of lakes like Minnewanka, Two Jack and Spray Lakes, so there’s no shovelling to do. You don’t even need to auger a hole to test the thickness of the ice; you can see how thick it is by looking through its glass-like depths. There’s been no freeze-thaw cycle with snow dumps, making the surface uneven and treacherous for skating. The temps are in that +2C to -10C range. There’s been no winter storms, since the ice has formed. There’s plenty of sunshine. It is utter perfection
The ice surface, unmarred by ripples, stares up at you like a black glass mirror. Only it’s the funkiest mirror in existence. Methane bubbles, caught in their slow motion movement as the ice was forming, hang suspended, like little mushroom clouds beneath your feet.
We put in at Sparrowhawk (see the “if you go” pointers at the bottom of this post). Many people were there, but you’d hardly know it. The ice surface is so huge that you could have a 100-on-100 shinny game in epic Canadian fashion.
You can see little people in the photo above… the group on shore was taking a break, fueling up with hot chocolate and cookies while in the distance, people were date-skating in twos, family skating in chatty groups, speed skating with hockey sticks and pucks, and leisurely skating with dogs and strollers. Taking off our boots and strapping on our skates, we heard squeals of delight and a loud shwooshing noise as a child was spun around in a circle at break neck speed on a toboggan by his dad.
We set off from the shore and had a blast, Bill skating circles (quite literally) around me as we went.
Putting my own excited posts on Facebook had quite a few concerned friends and family asking about the thickness of the ice… is it safe… how do you KNOW how thick it is? The neat thing about the conditions right now is that you can simply see how thick the ice is… looking down at the suspended methane bubbles or looking at the cracks as they extend below your feet you know at a glance that it’s more than the 10″ that’s safe.
What caught me was the extreme beauty in the ice itself.
The Spray Lakes are a series of lakes (forming a reservoir) that lie between dams up in the Spray Valley, up above the town of Canmore. Accessed by a gravel road that is a continuation of the road that leads to the Nordic Centre, the lakes are popular in the winter for ice fishing.
Sparrowhawk is the place from which we choose to skate as it is far from the dams, so the ice is safer as the fluctuations in water level, and the movement of water below the ice surface is less extreme.
Sparrowhawk lies beyond the Driftwood parking area (see the map below). Its parking area is closed off in the winter, but you can park alongside the road, and walk down on a short access trail.
If you are not intimately familiar with the mountain peaks and the terrain up there, be sure to bring something (a large bag, a ski pole with a scarf tied to it, a flag) to mark your putting-in spot at the edge of the lake. After skating many, many kilometers along the lake’s surface, it can be difficult to find your spot on the way back… especially because the wind pushing at your back on one of your ways makes for a speedy, time-warped skate, so you can’t use the passing of time from your turn around spot as a good indicator.
One other pointer: skate up-wind first, as far as you can go. It is more exhausting to go against the wind, but the ride you have on the way back, with the wind pushing you along the surface of the ice, is a thrill like no other! Don’t worry about going beyond your half-way point as the way back is exceptionally easy!
One last thing… you have GOT to check out the photos of Paul Zizka, a local Banff photographer, who takes the most amazing night-time shots of northern lights, starry skies, methane bubbles and skaters on the wintry lakes of the Bow Valley area. His work is incredibly inspiring.