Wild Ice: Perfection at Peyto Lake

What’s more fleeting than larch season? Wild ice season. This magical, early-winter window typically lasts just days and requires the perfect combination of conditions: a few days of very cold temperatures, little wind, and no snow.

A bitter cold snap here in southern Alberta at the end of October rapidly froze a handful of lakes around Banff and Canmore. I ran to the store with the exuberance of my eight-year-old self and bought my first pair of new skates since middle school. The next week, temperatures soared by a whopping 29°C and every trace of ice melted. As I began to lose all hope of chasing wild ice, temperatures finally took another nosedive the last weekend in November. The following week, the chase was on…

Because of its location along the Continental Divide, Peyto Lake is usually ice-covered and snow-free for a very brief interlude. Once the lake becomes snowbound, it remains that way until summer. When we heard on Tuesday afternoon the ice had reached a safe thickness, we knew we had to get up there quickly.

We drove up the Icefields Parkway early Wednesday morning under beautifully blue skies and temps around -9C (15F). We hiked the kilometer down to the lake and I strapped on my blindingly white blades. When I touched the ice, I was just about brought to tears. I have never seen ice like that. It was like skating on a piece of flawless, cerulean glass. Beneath the surface, you could see decaying trees some ten meters tall still standing vertically in the sediment. Occasionally, a fish would float through the crumbling underwater forest. As I glided out to the center of the lake, crystalline glass turned to turquoise and then a deep sapphire. Snowcapped mountains soared on every side of the lake, creating a natural echo chamber for the hollow groaning sounds of the ice as it expanded and contracted.

For four hours and nearly eight miles of skating, it was perfection at Peyto. Every second felt dreamlike; and while I was heartbroken that it had to come to an end, I was so grateful to have had that moment.

When I got home and looked at the forecast for the rest of the week, snow was predicted just 48 hours later. Petyo’s wild ice window had indeed been fleeting. It was a mere forty-eight hours of otherworldly ice. Seventy-two at best. And then, just like that, Peyto’s magical, mirrorlike mantle vanished just as quickly as it appeared.

Video gallery

Staying safe on the ice

Skating on wild ice is one of the most freeing and exhilarating experiences there is. That experience, however, comes with inherent risk. Ice thickness can change very quickly (even within hours given swings in air temperature), and there can be enormous variability from one spot to the next, perhaps even just a few feet away. If you go through the ice, being able to quickly self-rescue can save your life. Cold shock can happen in just two to three minutes, and hypothermia can lead to death in as little as an hour.

It’s important to remember when venturing out that you are responsible for your own safety. Parks Canada does not monitor ice thickness, and does not post signs warning of thin ice. Just because someone else is out there, that doesn’t mean conditions are safe. Additionally, always take your own measurements. Don’t blindly trust the guidance of others. Every year, people do go through the ice. At least two individuals fell through while we were up there (in separate incidents), but both were luckily able to self-rescue.

So, how thick should the ice be for safe skating? Many reliable sources use 10 centimeters (4 inches) as the standard guidance for safe thickness for solo skating. Parks Canada’s recommendation is a little more conservative, suggesting 15 cm (6 inches) for solo skating. If skating in a group, 20 cm (7+ inches) is the rule of thumb.

What affects ice thickness? Factors other than temperature can affect ice thickness, including lake depth, proximity to moving water (streams, springs or rivers) and fluctuations in water levels. Some lakes in the Canadian Rockies are reservoirs (e.g. Abraham Lake, Lake Minnewanka and Spray Lakes), and the water levels can be raised or lowered. This will significantly affect thickness and stability of the ice. Try to familiarize yourself with each lake or pond before heading out.

Two of the things we consider to be the most important safety tips when chasing wild ice are (1) don’t go alone and (2) always have a way to measure the ice. Carrying the appropriate safety gear is also important. Below, we’ve listed a few items that will likely be invaluable in the event of an emergency.

Gear list

  • Ice picks for self-rescue. These awls will help grip the ice to allow you to pull yourself out. They can also be slid across the ice to assist someone else who has fallen through. At around $20, they are cheap and would be considered a must-have for anyone going out on the ice.
  • Ice screw for measuring ice thickness. The screw we have is five inches long, though they come in varying lengths. It’s super easy to use and small enough to fit in a jacket pocket. Remember that testing one area of ice is not enough. Take multiple measurements in several locations.
  • Personal flotation device. It’s not a bad idea to wear a PFD on the ice, especially if you are first testing the ice to take measurements.
  • Whistle. If you experience cold shock, one of the first things you lose is your ability to yell. A whistle can help you get the attention of others if you fall through the ice. If you decide to wear a PFD, most should come with equipped with whistle.
  • A blanket and/or change of clothes. If you’re experiencing even mild hypothermia, it is important to be able to warm your body temperature quickly. Wet clothes are going to keep you cold longer.
  • Throw rope. It’s one of the clunkier items on the list, but can be used to rescue someone who is in trouble.
  • Knowledge. Do your research before heading out so you can keep yourself safe. Although it may seem like overkill for many, one thing Stephan and I hope to do in the future is an ice rescue training course. Much like avalanche safety in the backcountry, a professional class could help you save your own life or the life of someone else.

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