Helena, Mont. • The sharp scrape of steel on ice cut through a rare windless December morning at the Silos on Canyon Ferry Reservoir as a quartet of skaters moved briskly across the smooth frozen surface.
A mild reflection grew across the ice as they approached, slowing to a stop near the shore before a few pushes on the skates sent them gliding once again, becoming only specks against the outline of Mount Baldy in the background.
"It's so graceful and the possibilities are endless," said Dale Livezey from Helena, skating backward as he spoke. "When the ice is smooth like this, it's the closest thing to flying on the ground."
Several years ago Livezey and some “wild ice” skating enthusiasts started an online group to network and share their passion. About five years ago the group moved to Facebook under the name “MT icebuds,” which has grown to include a sizable network of photos and videos, ice reports and invitations to come out and skate.
"It's great because the conditions are so dynamic, there's such a short window, and to be able to communicate about the ice is so important. Plus it's great to share these experiences with people that enjoy them," Livezey told the Independent Record .
While MT icebuds is not the only organized skating group in Montana — Flathead-based Wild Ice Montana operates in the northwest — it has quickly grown as the go-to place for Helena and Bozeman skaters.
"It's been growing each year little by little, and there's a dedicated group here," said Dave Gluek of Bozeman. "It's just the freedom of it. There're no boundaries, and you can just go up the lake on that big marble floor and there's nothing like it."
In Bozeman, Gluek and others prepare and maintain a skating pond in town, but always enjoy making the trek to Canyon Ferry or Ennis Lake in the pursuit of open ice. The popularity of skating has ebbed and flowed over the years, he said, recalling up to 100 people in the 1980s out skating and ice boating at one time.
Most skaters use Nordic skates with long blades conducive to gliding. With days that may include shuttles and up to 20-mile skates, the design is far superior to figure skates, especially on rough ice.
Heading out onto lake ice means safety is a priority. The first freeze of the year is often a hard freeze, and they will skate on as little as 2 inches of ice, which they check beforehand. Most skaters also wear helmets, bring a throw rope and all carry ice picks in case they fall through and must pull themselves out.
Skating on the wild ice of Montana’s lakes and reservoirs can only happen when the atmospheric stars align. While cold temperatures are the biggest part of the equation, skaters also need a lack of snow to keep the surface clean.
The Helena area's propensity for early cold but little snow gives it an advantage over places such as the Seeley-Swan, where mounting snow quickly narrows the skating window if they get any window at all.
"Helena is unique in how it's situated for skating," Livezey said. "We're in this high mountain desert and have all this public access; I can't think of someplace better that has this quality of ice and a variety of places to go."
With shallow water freezing first, the ponds on the southern end of Canyon Ferry typically present the earliest opportunities to skate. The Helena Valley Regulating Reservoir and Lake Helena are also early to freeze, and then the southern end of Canyon Ferry in the bays out into the main lake, with ice moving north as the season progresses. Depending on conditions, Livezey says even areas such as Gates of the Mountains have become skateable. This year, the Causeway on Hauser has been a popular spot.
MT icebuds includes members in the northwest and eastern part of the state providing updates on those waterbodies.
"We're looking for more people all the time to give us information on all the lakes out around Helena but really anywhere in the state," Livezey said.
Among those skating several Montana lakes this year and etching turns across Canyon Ferry with Livezey and his wife Amy were Rachel and Stephanie Robey from Maryland. The sisters and former figure skaters decided to enter a contest from KOA Campgrounds pitching an outdoor adventure. Their proposal to come out West in search of wild ice won the grant award.
When deciding where to go, Livezey found the pair online and encouraged them to make Montana their destination.
"I didn't even know Nordic existed, but with our background I just figured we'd apply," Rachel said. "It's been awesome but definitely a little weird because we were used to skating on those contained rinks, and out here it's just a bigger standard."
MT icebuds is happy to see new skaters on the ice. Members recommend getting involved with the local skating community by following the Facebook group, talking with those who are organizing outings, and coming to the lake to give it a try.
"It's in the big wide open and you can move around so effortlessly," Amy Livezey said. "The community is really fun too. When you find that commonality, it's instant camaraderie."