Originally published Wednesday, September 01, 2004
Winters in Montana were never mild when I was growing up there. The snow always threatened to bury the house, or at least cover the windows on one side of the house. One of my earliest memories of winter in Montana was that of a small Franklin stove. God bless Benjamin Franklin for his invention. Actually, to be technical, God bless David R. Rittenhouse who took Franklin’s flawed design of a freestanding cast-iron stove and made it work. Good ol’ Ben had originally designed his stove so the smoke would exit from the bottom, failing to realize that smoke rises and fire needs oxygen. His design did produce a stove that radiated a lot of heat, but wouldn’t stay lit for extended periods of time. Rittenhouse redesigned the stove with a pipe on top.
I loved that stove. I would awaken in the cold morning well before the sun broke over the mountains to the east and hover near the stove. It was on these mornings I would cherish the cinnamon toast and hot chocolate my mom would make for me. My dad would have already left for work. Often his would be the first tire tracks out on the long dirt road that lead to the main paved road.
As I grew up, winter was more than just cold and snow. The hill that led down to the lake became an ultimate sledding course. The lake itself would freeze over with ice sometimes two feet thick and would become the largest ice skating rink I have ever known. I loved ice-skating on that lake. At night, the frozen lake would speak and sing. The ice was always under some form of stress and that stress would result in cracks erupting. Each crack was a voice and sometimes the voices gathered into choirs. As spring approached, the ice would get more talkative. On a good day I would skate from my house, to Kim’s Marina, into Chinaman’s Campground, over to Yacht Basin, around Cemetery Island, back to home. That would take me about three hours. I would do this alone, which wasn’t without risk.
I never fully realized the risks involved until that one winter when I was skating along and hit thin ice and fell in. I sank with the weight of the skates on my feet and struggled to get my arms on the ice, but the ice kept breaking. Turning towards shore, I kept breaking the ice until my feet touched bottom and then continued moving towards land. I don’t have a recollection of being cold, I think fear and adrenaline kept me warm enough. As soon as I hit the beach, I ran the best I could with my skates on towards the house. I was luckily over an area that was called ‘the point’ which was a stretch of beach on the north side of Magpie Bay, which wasn’t too far from home. The run home was cold, that I do recall keenly. My fingers and toes were numb and I was shivering like mad. The frostbite was minor, but to this day, a good blast from the air conditioner will make my ears, fingers, and toes burn and ache.
I understood from that moment on, the true treachery of that area of the lake. It didn’t take much warmth in that are for that section of the ice to melt away when the rest of the lake was still several inches thick. Unfortunately, not enough people knew this. One winter’s night when I was in high school, I was getting a hair cut from my mom. I noticed a light flashing from the lake. On closer inspection, it was coming from a man stranded out there. I grabbed an orange water float that was meant to be pulled behind a boat and ran out to the point to help guide the man ashore. He had been following the tracks of his father’s homemade snowmobile when he got to this section. The ice was cracking around him and he was unsure of where to move to get back to safety. Luckily he had been on foot and was able to hear the sounds and sense the fragility of the ice. His father who had been out on the snowmobile much earlier in the day, didn’t have that notice and plunged through the thin ice. His father had fallen into the iced over lake a dozen yards away from where I fell in. I only had to move several feet to find footing, no one knows what conditions under which that man was struggled.
As the lake thawed with the approach of spring, the ice would melt away from the shore, leaving a giant tantalizing raft of ice floating out in the center. The air would be warm, the ground was wet instead of frozen and talk among my brothers and sisters would turn from winter things to who would be the first in the lake. If there were any Rites of Childhood for me, attempting to be first in the lake had to be one of the most cherished. How hard could it be, in March and sometimes April, when the lake was shedding it’s icy crust, to take a dip. The water was crystal clear and so tempting. The lake was cold, but feeling it with your hand, you couldn’t see how it was so cold as to prevent you from taking that quick dip and thus earning the title First In The Lake.
Dressed in bathing suits a few would line up and make their attempts. Some would get to their knees, few would get to their waists, and I dare say that I have no recollection of anyone going in all the way. As the ice disappeared completely and the sun was out longer, eventually someone would get in, but by that time the boaters were already on the lake and the title was a bit more meaningless because summer was around the corner.