Winter on the Missouri.
Each winter, the watersport party venue Canyon Ferry Lake becomes the ice-sport capital of Montana. The 25-mile long reservoir on the Missouri River is just over an hour’s drive from Bozeman, off Hwy. 287. As one of the largest and longest lakes in Montana, with easy access, good facilities, and plenty of space, the reservoir has become the premier venue for all things ice. Townsend is the nearest town to the lake with a few restaurants and cafes open during the winter, and Helena is just 12 miles to the north. Better yet, pack your barbecue, cocoa, and favorite tipple… on ice.
Canyon Ferry is a place where ice-boat sailing speed records are made, or at least attempted. If conditions are right—wind, no surface snow, and about two feet or more of ice—ice boats can reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour. Canyon Ferry doesn’t get too much snow buildup on the ice, so it’s one of the best locations in the world for this form of dangerous fun. It's not for the faint-hearted, with adrenaline and helmets being mandatory equipment (cleats help on the black ice, too). While still relatively new in Montana, hardsail boaters have been ice-boating on frozen lakes and rivers in the Midwest for decades. Vessels are like a bobsleds with skated outriggers, and boaters run and push their boats to catch the wind, then jump in. Access the frozen lake from the Silos boat ramp north of Townsend, and you’ll probably see boats lined up and strapped down ready for action. If there are folks on the ice, they’ll often have spare helmets, and you can ask for a ride to check it out. Visit montanakitesports.com/ice for more info.
National Geographic just listed “wild skating” at Canyon Ferry as one of its top-ten must-do snow adventures. The slick black ice makes this location perfect for speed skating – not that you have to go fast to have fun. Whether you’re chasing a puck around for free, or testing out your figure-skating turns, it’s a great all-around family venue and activity. If you’re really up for it, get rigged up with a kite, and try out ice-kiting on skates, boards, or buggies. It's a bit like snow-kiting, so get prepared for butt-boarding at speeds up to 30 miles per hour.
On Two Wheels (Or Feet)
For the gearheads, there’s motorcycle racing, ice-cross, or ice-riding. If you’re into dirtbiking, winter needn’t put you out of action. Enthusiasts set up a course on the ice for those who want to give it a try. Of course, you can also get your human-powered two-wheelers out (with studs) and try something a little different. Get on the ice at White Earth campground and boat ramp, a little further north of the Silos. Take your backpack and try a cooler night under the stars at one of the beaches up the shore. It’s certainly a “path-less-traveled,” and an opportunity to listen to the chillingly beautiful sounds of creaking ice song. And if you’re a bit leery of the occasional spell of open water and the whip cracks of flexing ice, there are miles of snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing trails in the adjacent Helena National Forest. Several trailheads are accessible from Hwy. 284, north and east of the lake. Make sure you check with the Forest Service and Bureau of Reclamation for up-to-date rules on winter motorized access.
Of course, ice fishing is the traditional favorite on the lake, attracting fishermen and family for year-round trout, walleye, and yellow perch. Six lines of two hooks per line give good chances for a winter fish-feast. The local Broadwater Lion’s annual Perch Derby will be held January 23-24, 2016. And then there’s always ice diving. It’s hazardous, requiring lots of equipment, training, and preparation. Few have tackled Canyon Ferry Lake in the winter, but those who have know the secrets hidden in the frigid, icy green water. The old towns of Canton and supply hub Canyon Ferry lie 120 feet down, with the ghostly outlines of Samuel T. Hauser’s original dam and granite pump house. Three of the Lewis and Clark campsites and ancient Native American rock petroglyphs also lie buried in this vast watery grave. At what used to be Black Rock Canyon – present day Cemetery Island – the Canyon Ferry cemetery is the final resting place of some of the residents of the submerged town.