It's been a mild winter here in the Northwest, occasional cold blasts lasting an week or two, interspersed with extended periods of daytime temps climbing into the 40s and 50s, making it a short season for we beleaguered lovers of frozen water. With our small boats, John and I have been chasing good ice around Montana since November, but it's feeling like our window may be easing shut.
So when Dave Bailey puts out the word that Bitterroot's still got 9 inches with a sailable surface, and a forecast for breeze, we perk up. I blast out of Spokane early Friday morning, and by early afternoon we're rigging in precious sunshine, punctuated by furious snow squalls, one of which quickly deposits an inch of graupel on our lovely surface. But it's warm, with a few zephyrs passing through, and we push off. I get her hooked up but a couple of times in the stronger puffs, but John, with his legendary light air skills, and this magical new craft of his, manages to zip around fairly non stop. Tom Schock (yes, that Tom Schock) and his genial extended family, show up for a closer look at this alternative form of sailing. And soon enough they're in the boats, trying their hands. Mine's tough to keep rolling in the light stuff, but anyone who jumps in the Kestrel manages to exit with a massive grin. Steve figures it out right away, soft water sailing skills transferring easily to this new venue.
We all stand about on the ice, enjoying the mountain surroundings and the company, til the day begins to wane. Dave launches his kite for a few short runs before it all shuts down, and John and I park the boats for the night, as another snow squall descends upon us. A bite to eat at the Hilltop Tavern, with the Marion locals who are gathering for a Friday night. And as we drive back down into the valley, the snow turns into rain. We retire praying that the precip stops!
Clear skies, ten degrees, and the predicted breeze greet us in the morning. On the ice by ten, there's an additional two inches of light powder on top of yesterday's deposit, more than we'd like, but manageable given enough pressure. And it's building. Patchy, with big lulls, but in the puffs we're hooking up big time! Four kiters join us in the melee. It's sunny, with more snow squalls scouring the surface, bringing with them the glee juice. When they hit, it's full tilt! Maximum attention and lightning reflexes required to retain control. Too much power and the windward rear runner leaps off the ice, or the rear end breaks free, either event demanding an instantaneous direction change and/or sheet dump to regain equilibrium. Then sheet back in hard, head back into the power, and take off again for more.
The sun is dropping, the skies are clearing, and now the puffs are kicking up clouds of snow ten or fifteen feet high, screaming across the lake, making the pressure visible. Driving into them demands intense concentration in preparation for the hit. Negotiating them skillfully delivers a huge burst of acceleration, with an accompanying spike of adrenaline that's massively rewarding. In the lulls we park up together and blather about the impossibility of anything else being more fun than this! Then the breeze cranks back up and we're off again!
This is the Kestrel's first test in big air, and all John's years of experience designing, building and sailing these high speed machines, seems to have paid off with a superbly balanced boat right out of the box. He spent countless hours analyzing the proportions of other successful iceboat designs, and supplemented that with the recent championship results his most recent landsailer design delivered, and spawned a winner! Blazingly fast in these conditions, controllable when overpowered, and easily pointing ten degrees higher than the Fed. Even running with a sail a full meter larger than John's, he still walks away from me in any direction.
Along with the sun, the temperature is descending as well, and after over six hours on the ice we're getting cold, tired and sore. We've both seen max speeds over 50, in what were sticky conditions, a faster surface would probably have pushed us into the sixties. My gps logs over 130 miles covered on a three mile long lake, but there's no metric for the giggles. Another best day of the year...
We break the boats down in the last rays of sunshine, stuff 'em in the back of the van, and trundle on home, speculating whether there's more of this particular fun to be had this season. I awake the next morning to more crisp winter sun, hitch up to the brand new landsailing trailer John's built for me, and sojourn back thru the mountains to prepare for the next big adventure, dirtboat racing in the desert!
I pull into Tum Tum with enough daylight to saddle up the Yamaha for a ride to the ridgetop in time to indulge in a sunset bowl. Winter and summer sports all in one February weekend, life is ever entertaining. I am blessed...
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