Every few years between the end of fall and the beginning of winter, something extraordinary happens up here.
No, not the kind you slip on when you get out of the car or scrape off your deck in the morning, not that kind of quotidian ice.
Ice that you can fly over on thin silver blades like a winged bird, keeping time with the fishes beneath you and the wind above you. Ice that you can sing on, beat your drum on, slide like a child on, run laps on.
That kind of ice.
It happens those years when the winter snows stay at bay but cold temperatures do not. It happens when ice forms along lakeshores, sweeping out in a crystal wave toward the middle of lakes and ponds and tarns, filling in the indigo blue with silver and white.
If the snow comes too early, it doesn’t happen. If it never gets deeply cold until after it snows, the newly forming ice bonds with the snowflakes and it doesn’t happen either. There’s no flying on stuff like that.
The wind, too, must play its proper role. If it blows in too hard, if it comes in as a rolling tide the ice forms choppy and rough. On the other hand, if it snows a bit but the wind doesn’t blow at all, the snow sticks to the ice and again, it doesn’t happen.
So it’s a rare year, a rare month, a rare few weeks or days even, when everything comes together like it can sometimes.
This year, right now, is one of those times.
And it could all change at any moment. All that’s needed is a little too much snow.
So go on.
Get out there.
It was 3 p.m. on the last day of November. I spun north up U.S. 395 toward Lee Vining just hours before Tioga Pass was expected to close for at least a few days in the face off an oncoming winter storm (the road should open again Friday). I’d heard only that morning from friends that something amazing was going on up there, up at Tioga Lake, and I left work early, trying to outrun the storm.
Driving up the pass road, dodging late season boulders on the road, I headed straight into the oncoming storm and my car whipped and swayed in the wind.
Passing snow-covered Ellery Lake at the top of the road, the setting sun broke though the storm clouds, casting gold from pewter. At the top, the wind was even more ferocious, sending flurries dancing across the road.
I drove another two miles to Tioga Lake and pulled at the east end of the lake where the road down to the campground starts.
The lake was exactly as it had been described; one giant, silky smooth mirror, shimmering in the rose-gold sunset. It looked like it had been poured of purest silver and buffed to a high shine. To the west, where the storm rolled in from the Pacific, the mountains of eastern Yosemite cut through the clouds, wreathed in grey and rose.
I grabbed my 20-year-old black skates and headed into the teeth of the fierce wind, tears streaming down my face. The lake is low, drained to about 15 feet below the shoreline by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, but it’s still only a few minutes’ walk to the shore where the ice begins.
I pulled off my boots, fingers already numb in the sub-zero wind chill. The skates felt like blocks of wood in my frozen fingers, but I clumsily tied laces and just as clumsily clambered to my feet. It had been 10 years since I last put on skates, out by one of the alkali ponds on the Benton Crossing Road on a Christmas morning where my family and I skated for hours, then ate hot sausages and spicy mustard on toasted baguettes cooked over a lakeside fire.
The decade long hiatus showed, as I scrabbled and skittered across the glossy ice, whipped by wind and snow, trying to find balance on the eighth-inch thick blades.
The fierce wind didn’t help.
Then it happened.
Like riding a bicycle, you never really forget how to ice skate and the old skills, honed by years riding the open lakes and canals of my Idaho home, came back.
I caught my balance then and began to move. Faster and faster, blown by wind and wildness and light, I skimmed across the sheer gloss of the rose-colored ice, dancing between sky and earth.
The wind whipped and cried, the clouds rose and spun toward the half moon rising in the west. The sun dropped and sunk into the clouds and the lake turned into molten gold for one brief shining moment, then calmed to grey.
Still I flew, skating across miles of open ice, watching the fish flash beneath me in the dark water. The wild trees shifted and bent under the wind and I raced them too, flying along the lakeshore, following rock and beach and boulder. The cold intensified. My border collie followed me, tongue out, ears pinned to the back of her head by the wind, toenails scrabbling on the ice.
We turned back at last and headed toward the car as the sharp quick dark of the last day of November descended, racing the last bit of light, headed for home.
Drive north of U.S. 395 to the turnoff to Yosemite National Park on S.R. 120 West. Drive nine miles to the top of the waterfall that drops out of Ellery Lake, then drive another two miles to the east end of Tioga Lake. Park there at a big pull out where a road descends to the Campground and walk a few hundred yards down to the lake shore.
Other skating options
Although there are many backcountry lakes known for ice skating such as Treasure Lakes up Rock Creek, most years they take a decent hike to get to. This year, for at least a little while longer, great skating is as close as a short drive. The same lack of snow that has kept the lakes open has also kept the Tioga Pass Road open intermittently. According to Yosemite National Park Service spokeswoman Kari Cobbs, the road will be open in between storms, as long as there is no significant snowfall, something not expected until perhaps mid-December (check conditions daily). And there are Eastsiders that have made skating the high country lakes something of an art. They even have their own Facebook page (Eastern Sierra Backcountry Ice Skating).
According to one of them, Lee Vining resident Linda Dore, (who’s been making a daily pilgrimage along with her husband Dave up to Tioga Lake every morning that the pass road has been open lately), Tioga Lake isn’t the only easy-to-get-to lake.
“If you go up past Tioga Pass Resort, on the left, there’s that big tarn there that’s looking really good,” she said. “Lundy (Lake) is looking like it might be ready soon too. And if it doesn’t snow in this next storm, we might get Gull and Silver (in the June Lake Loop), too.”
Local June Lake residents have made it something of a tradition to keep parts of their lakes open for ice skating, even if it does snow, so keep an eye on that Facebook page.