Although I’ve lived near the mountains my whole life, this year we got to do something incredibly unique—we skated on natural lakes in the mountains! It never really occurred to me why people don’t always skate on frozen lakes but typically at this time of the year, it’s too cold and snowy to get on the ice. However this year was different! Gorgeous sunny days, decently warm weather, and limited snow created the ideal conditions for a fairy tale skate!
Not knowing much about assessing frozen lake conditions, we decided to head to some popular destinations around Banff that were being showcased as skating “hot spots” due to the rare clear ice. Since the kids are too young to skate for themselves, we brought some warm blankets and sled to pull them in. The double Chariot also worked great for our 6 month old.
Unbeknownst to me, the edges of the lake are actually quite tricky to navigate since the ice is often thin and choppy in these spots. We found some sturdy areas and walked further onto the lake to sit down and put on our skates. (Further down I’ll include a list of useful items to bring!). The sled worked perfectly to pull our 2yr old across these sections.
It was a surreal experience to navigate on such a large amount of ice in the middle of the mountains! Looking down into the clear bottom was also phenomenal! However seeing the cracks and realizing that a body of freezing cold water moved below my feet (these lakes don’t freeze to the bottom) was also a little terrifying. As the ice expanded under the sun, it also emitted noises that resembled whale calls from beneath—I’ve never heard anything like it.
Despite the large amount of skaters on the ice, I decided to head to shore after noticing a few shallow cracks. While taking off my skates I also heard some cracking near the edges that completely freaked me out. It was a good reminder that these lakes aren’t monitored and there are definitely risks associated with skating on natural lakes. A few days later I discovered that the warm weather had weakened a few spots on the lake and people had gone into the water near the edges (thankfully nobody was injured or harmed). Again, another reminder that you need to do your own assessment of the conditions and take precautions—especially with kids!
We ventured out one more time for a mountain skate but decided to try a smaller lake, Johnson Lake. It appeared to be much sturdier (no whale noises, deeper cracks, no puddles), less busy, and not as exposed to the sun. Again, it was a surreal experience and something I will definitely want to do again when the kids are older.
In the meantime, here are some things I learnt and will share with you:
- People say there’s safety in numbers—although it feels good to know that you’re not the only one on a body of ice, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe. Do your own assessment and make our own judgement calls.
- Monitor the depth of cracks in the ice. I didn’t understand this until I was able to compare the cracks of the second lake to our first. They were significantly deeper (you could almost assess the depth of the ice by looking at the length of the crack) Some parts of the ice also seemed to have deep layered cracks.
- The colour of ice can also reveal a lot—blue ice is strongest while frosty, opaque ice is weaker
- Seems like a no brainer but watch for puddles and exposed water—this could be a sign of cracks with surfacing water
- Remember edges will be weaker and any areas that are more shallow or that come into contact with moving water (canals, runoffs, etc)
- If you don’t feel safe or find yourself questioning the conditions, go with your gut and head into town to check out an outdoor rink
Looking back, my heart skips a beat at the thought that we potentially could have fallen in—my husband has more experience in this area and continues to reassure me that we were in no danger. However my son had just as much fun skating on the frozen puddles around the lake which posed no risk of anything drastic happening (except for slipping!) and there were still amazing mountain back drops.
If you do find yourself heading out for a mountain skate, here are some items I’d recommend:
- Use milk crates to pack your items—these can double up as seats to sit down and put on your skates
- Pack extra blankets and warm layers
- Thermos with warm bevies
- Thick gloves/mitts and a thin pair (tightening up skates is hard – a thin pair of gloves helps give you grip and keeps your fingers warm)
- Fresh warm socks for after skating
- Sleds are great for transporting items to the lake and also for pulling tired kids
- Helmets, (some parents also use life jackets), first aid kit—remember you might be further away from help than you think