Skating on the Spray

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.IMG_2084.jpg

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 perfectionIMG_2165.jpg

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.

Which way’s up? Which way’s down? It’s a little like The Upside Down from an episode of Stranger Things.

IMG_2074.jpgWe 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. IMG_2075.jpgTaking 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.

It’s a little freaky, as you glide away from shore, watching the stones drop away into the inky depths of the lake beneath your feet.
Skating into the soft light of the winter sun, you get a sense of the immensity of this rink.
What very little snow has fallen up there is swept off the surface by the winds that travel along the lake’s surface, causing beautiful snaking snow-smoke at your feet.

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? IMG_2159.jpgThe 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.

Bill points down at one of the cracks that you can see, extending through the ice.

What caught me was the extreme beauty in the ice itself.

Cracks and bubbles formed the most incredible patterns.
Cracks form, and then fill in with the inky black water from below.
The cracking and shifting of the ice is a normal thing… and something you want for its stability. Here a crack extends off into the distance.
The breath of the lake below, like that of a slumbering monster, snakes its way up through the crack, freezing along its sides into little crystals along the razor edge of the crack.
A thick crack forms, then fills with inky black water. Later, a shift in the ice causes a perpendicular crack to form and move slightly, making the first crack offset…. like a piece of modern art!
Methane bubbles, suspended in animation as the ice forms, look like scenes from a snow globe.
At times, those bubbles form in clusters.
Sometimes they pull through to the surface, and their indentations catch passing snowflakes, and look like little pompoms on the ice.
And sometimes they form like multi-layered mushroom clouds.
Then there are the striations that look like the milky way, extending off into the distance.
Skating over these Milky Ways is an out-of-this-world experience!
At the end of our skate, the soft light of the setting sun made everything have a golden hue.
We sat down on the icy mounds at the side of the lake, took off our skates and put on our boots for the short hike back up to the car.
What a day! As we left, a group was arriving, with headlamps on, ready to experience an epic skate at night.

If you go…

Screen Shot 2017-12-17 at 9.08.39 AMThe 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.

Screen Shot 2017-12-17 at 9.10.55 AM

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.

IMG_2135Click here for more terrific hiking adventures in Kananaskis Country (Canmore Area). And check out more hikes from Canada and our adventures around the world here.

20 Comments on “Skating on the Spray

  1. Wow. I’m jealous of those who can skate. The lake that I could only admire from the shore now is covered with ice. It must have felt wonderful to be skating in the middle of a huge lake. Too bad that Bill’s skates didn’t have toe picks, or else I might have seen him landing those triple lutz. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very cool. Cold, even. That’s the biggest rink I’ve ever seen. I hadn’t heard of “shinny” as opposed to pond hockey and had to look it up. Sounds much more sociable than “real” hockey.

    Is learning to skate a rite of passage for folks in Alberta? I did a little back in my Minnesota years but was never very good at it.


    • If truth be told, I don’t skate very well, even though I grew up pond skating. (And that’s highly un-Canadian of me!) We went back the next day and the wind was howling through that valley, gusting up to 70km/h! As soon as you stopped, the wind picked you up and hurtled you along the ice. As I can’t stop….. (yup, thats how well I skate!)….I had to do switchback turns to slow down that day, and the return leg required no movement of my legs at all!

      Liked by 1 person

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  4. This seems like so much fun! I don’t think I ever ice-skated (I used to roller blade when I lived in Brussels, but missed the opportunity to skate on one of the winter markets). Great pictures too, and thank you for pointing me to Paul Zizka’s portfolio!

    Have a great 2018,


    • Thanks, Verne. Paul’s work is incredible and he’s travelled the world teaching photography classes in wild outdoor spaces… he doesn’t just do spectacular shots of northern lights, ice and mountains here. This past year, one of the places he went to was Namibia…and his shots of the sand dunes and dark skies there are so so inspiring.

      Happy New Year to you & your family too. And hapv fun and inspiring others with your writing in 2018.

      Liked by 1 person

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  6. Totally mesmerised by this post. My coordination is rubbish and I’ve never skated but how wonderful to slide into your husband’s boots there for just a few moments. Amazing! 🙂 🙂


    • It was an incredible moment. Perfect conditions. And sliding into my husband’s boots is something I did quite a bit the next day… literally… when the 70-90km/hour wind gusts buffered is back along the ice… I have such trouble with stopping on skates any time, you see. 😉 So switchbacking, and sliding into him worked well! 🙄

      Liked by 1 person

  7. We walked on a frozen lake last year. I’m not sure I’d be any good with the skating though. Don;t trust my balancing skills with motion. 🙂


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