Chasing Wild Ice
An Interview with Adventurer and Photographer Lee Nordbye
The Thrill of the Chase
Deep in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, I stood at the edge of a frozen lake. Puffy clouds ringed in pink and the tilt of the sunrise began to kiss the surrounding peaks. Laser-like pings, creaks and other worldly sounds emitted from pristine blue ice.
The lake itself still moved. Bubbles caught in the thinnest layer of ice danced like a lava lamp near my feet. Open water from kilometers away gave me the sense of breath being brought to this alpine bay and the ice heaved with inhales as if the lake merely clung to a thin layer of Saran Wrap.
My new friend Lee Nordbye, braver and more experienced with ice than I, was already ten feet out. He took a knee and wrapped his gloved finger through the top of an ice-climber’s screw and rotated it into the ice. Lee had already explained that if the ice is as deep as the cuts of the screw, it is four inches and considered Red-Cross-standard-safe for skating. He told me how we must respect the ice, understand what is happening and be safe in our decisions.
Dangling near his hands were self-rescue picks. He could grab them if the ice cracked, shifted or was no longer there and stab a chunk that is to keep himself from falling in. Lee had told me in our first interview that sometimes he and his friends wear life jackets and tie themselves to a rope if they’re really unsure while testing ice quality. Today, he must be more confident as he had headed out un-roped.
I was still not convinced and continued to stand there mesmerized on shore. I like to be the 100th skater on the ice. Not the first. The day before, I had enjoyed a community skate on Spray Lakes where it seemed like the entirety of the Bow Valley had come out to play. Today – we were alone.
Lee Nordbye has been chasing wild ice for many years and has made visual storytelling of these places and peaks his life's work. He’s president of the Calgary Camera Club and has been featured in numerous magazines like Crowfoot Media, The Current and Calgary Guardian and recently won a bronze medal in an international master’s photograph competition.
It’s not luck that captures the brilliant photographs, but his talent, perseverance, and simply just working his ass off.
Wild ice skating is not a given. It’s a treat that needs perfect ingredients of many days in a row below zero and clear cool nights. The allure is impermanence. The ice can melt in one warm day or be buried by one snowstorm. Some years don’t see good conditions at all.
Until I began interviewing Lee, I didn’t understand how much effort was put into getting to this moment. Lee explained how he and two other photographers, Paul Zizka and Kris Andres work together to monitor the lakes and follow the weather. “We learn more this way and can push each other, but not too far so we don’t put one another at significant risk. Invariably, we want to be one of the first on a frozen lake. It’s clean from a photography point of view.”
I tuned into the music of the lake and then Lee punched his arm into the air and let out a “woo hoo”. I began to laugh and didn’t stop as I took my first tentative steps. Blades cut through the ice and I watched the safety of the lake-bed slide away as the water got too deep to see the bottom. I felt so incredibly present.
“Kat,” Lee called me over and pointed out methane bubbles. “When the lake freezes, it freezes from top to bottom. Methane gas is a naturally occurring phenomenon. Organic material at the bottom is rotting and it essentially farts. These farts get caught in the freezing process.”
The 7-year-old in me giggled again and I searched for frozen bubbles the shape of happy faces, fishes and Christmas trees. It doesn’t matter if one is a photographer or not, the bubbles are captivating.
I asked Lee what was his favourite lake to skate on.
“Bow Lake this past November. My friends and I had been watching for it to freeze. We made it out there, and the next day it snowed. That was it. We might have been the only group to skate Bow Lake. It is such a thrill to unfold something even better than you expected.”
One second they are there. The next they are gone.
“After Bow Lake, Peyto is now my dream lake to skate. We tried this year and got a little side-tracked on the hike in. We sweated up a storm, I lost a skate, and to top it all off the water was still open. What an epic adventure though! By doing these things, we laugh and smile and feel like children again. By the time we made it back to our cars, we were so stoked, even though we failed at our objective.”
time is Fleeting
Lee snatched out his camera to teach me how the methane bubbles generate such a cool foreground shot. I want Lee to be my new best friend. He is Santa and a wise man mixed together. I learned how unique these opportunities are. How they hardly exist and how creative he must be to go after them.
The sun had now lit the sky and the mountains were mirrored on the ice. I had never in my life skated on anything so smooth or fresh. The space was larger than 20 times an arena and I wanted hours to explore it all. Lee was as happy to pass the puck back and forth as he seemed to be about photography.
Too soon though, the wind picked up and whipped fresh water from afar over the ice. It splashed and flowed towards us and within minutes, our rink disappeared. I knew now, no one else would be able to skate on it. It was such a reminder how fragile these moments are.
More Lakes to watch for
Lac Des Arcs