patience rewarded

Local Knowledge

We’ve had an early cold snap here in the Pacific Northwest, distressing for those who’d prefer to ease into winter, but tantalizing to we who love to skim across frozen surfaces powered by the breeze. It was below freezing here in Spokane for nearly two weeks, but it wasn’t quite enough to produce usable ice. But the Flathead Valley was typically five to ten degrees cooler, with some nighttime temps near zero, enough to freeze Smith Lake, west of Kalispell, six inches thick! Phil spotted it, put the word out, and he and John proceeded to rip it up day after day. I had to wait til the following Thursday to break free of work, loaded up the Fed, and trundled off to the mountains.

I arrive early afternoon, and meet John at the launch. The predicted wind is a no show, but it’s sunny, still cool, and we strap on the skates and scout the lake. Numerous dead heads sticking thru the ice at the east end, and some open water where Ashley Creek exits the lake. We return to the rigs, break out chairs and beers to await some pressure. We eventually get a tiny bit, maybe two to three knots of breeze. John, with his World Championship boat and commensurate skill, gets her hooked up occasionally, teasing her into the teens, thanks to the hard and fast ice. I make a few desultory attempts, extremely doubtful of my chances, and a few times I can keep my steed rolling, but just barely. And as soon as the tiny puff vaporizes, I’m sittin’ still. We hang til near sunset, ever optimistic, but leave unrewarded.

Friday noon we try again, with similar results, even less wind, if that’s possible. So we again skate the perimeter, armed with fluorescent flagging tape and wands to mark the hazards. Don’t wanna be finding these things at speed! In the end, another nice day outside in the winter, just no adrenaline on tap.
I retire to the cabin in Rollins, lights out sometime after ten, only to be awakened at eleven by the predicted warm front arriving like a freight train! Breeze on! I return to slumber slightly giddy. Up at seven, it’s 35 degrees and still blowin’ hard! We’re on the ice by 10:30, rigging. Phil’s the first one to launch with his 4 meter kite, and he’s off like a shot! It’s rare that we get to run the iceboats with the kite skiers, they generally want a rougher surface than we’re looking for, but the warm temps and serious breeze have softened up the ice enough for him to get an edge. John’s off next, and I follow shortly. Ah, it’s good to back in the saddle!

Clouds move in, and with them come snow squalls. The wind becomes much more variable, dropping from our initial runs, and picking up as the squalls pass thru the valley. Phil and I return for larger rigs, John, having made the right choice of sail size initially, continues to cut it up. The surface is warming fast, producing significant puddles, and now thin sheets of ice are being torn off by the runners. All of which makes for a damp ride. Around noon we converge on the launch, for dry clothes, a bite to eat, and maybe a beer.

It’s starting to fill in now, and after a few more runs I have to rig down to the 4.5 meter sail. Perfect! She’s fully powered up now, the runners are biting well, and both John and I are approaching 50 mph on the downwind sprints. Which uses up this small lake quickly! John parks at the east end and breaks out the video camera. I race around him, trying to maximize my speed as I pass by him. It’s blowing a steady 20+ now, and it’s a challenge to control the boat. Apply too much power, or turn too sharply, and my rear runners break free, and she goes into a violent spin. One mistake, and I do a 720 degree spin, which I exit backwards, still travelling 20 mph!

I relieve John on camera duty, and he gets to show off, making the same loop, looking much smoother than me. This is the best pressure of the day, and it’s the kind of sailing we dream about, sometimes never seeing in a season. And here we are in November, already chocking up an epic day.
Phil’s burned up his available reserve of energy, and we’re winding down as well. As the sun rushes the horizon, we head in and pack up the boats in the waning sunshine, grinning stupidly again!
What a sport! Patience rewarded!