When winter skies are gray or sunny, the bright place to be is Whitefish Lake. Once the lake freezes, it's a winter wonderland.
But don't let her wild beauty tempt you iceward too quickly. Let mine be the example you don't want to follow.
I've ventured onto the frozen lake for years by ski, skate and bicycle. But in January 2009, I got careless. It was a frigid, sunburst Saturday. There was a lot of snow at City Beach on the south end of the lake, but I was looking for fresh ice with a skiff of snow. I found it at Les Mason Park, halfway up the lake.
Foolishly, I didn't bring my hatchet to chop my customary test holes.
I skiied onto the ice, staying close to shore. The sun and snow called to me. A few minutes later, I was 150 feet off-shore ... and suddenly the ice gave way. I was in deep, frigid water.
Fortunately I stayed calm and clear-headed. Yet adrenaline must have coursed my veins, because I never felt cold during the 12-15 minutes I desperately tread water.
No one heard my cries. No one was in sight. My only chance was to distribute my weight over the ice and heft myself out. And that meant I needed skis in my hands, not five feet underwater.
I concentrated on removing my skis while hanging onto the crumbling 1-inch ice shelf. That took 10 difficult minutes, clawing at my boot with a bare, numb hand.
Skis finally in hand, I broke through several times. I began to consider the eternal as my strength ebbed. Determined to survive, I summoned the right burst of technique, power and luck to push up and onto the ice. It held as I crawled to shore.
I staggered 10 minutes to my car and drove home to recover from hypothermia, frostbite, and a bruised psyche.
It took me two weeks to get back up on that horse. Then I skiied the southern end of Whitefish Lake just about every day for the next few weeks. It's glorious and quite popular with a diverse range of users.
Cross-country skiing is often excellent January through April. Opportunities to skate are precious and rare. Ice-fishing can be hot for whitefish, lake trout (aka mackinaws), and the occasional cutthroat trout or northern pike. Kite-skiers zoom. Dogs cavort. (Please use pooper-scooper bags - the lake is a drinking water source.)
Venture onto the lake with full caution. Chop or drill test holes, or check with anglers. I recommend four inches of solid ice or at least six inches if there's a punky layer.
Don't get careless like I did.
Best Places to Go
Put your skates or skis on at Whitefish City Beach and head out on the ice. In the right conditions, you can ride a standard-tire mountain bike. The lake freezes on the southern end first, so that's usually the safest place to venture.
Good public access also is available at Whitefish Lake State Park on the west shore.
Best Times to Go
Winter when a cold snap freezes the lake, generally in January. The ice lasts into April but is not safe in the spring. Exercise extreme caution.
What You Should Know Before You Go
Check with local ice fishermen to make sure the ice is thick enough. Or bring your own hatchet or ice borer. Winter ice is often in excess of 6-12 inches. About half the years (and probably on a diminishing basis due to the observable effects of climate change), the entire lake freezes end to end.