Word came out of the north last week that Flathead Lake had frozen over for the first time this century.
Word came out of the north in 1913 that the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi froze over for the first time in that century.
“For Second Time Known To Man The Great Lake is Covered With Ice,” read the headline in the Feb. 15, 1913 Missoulian, in a story fetched from missoulian.newspapers.com.
That came with a note of concern.
“Some apprehension is felt by persons living along the Flathead river bottom that the coming spring may witness a repetition of the flood of '94, and preparations are being made in some quarters to meet the contingency should it arise,” the story read.
Accounts differ. Some this year say the last time Flathead Lake froze over was in 1990, though the Missoulian and other state papers didn’t seem to note it. They did the winter before, and reported that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks records showed previous freeze-overs in 1947, 1963, 1969, 1979, 1985 and 1986.
Frozen Flatheads have had changing impacts since 1890, the years covered by Missoulian online archives, missoulian.newspapers.com.
“No boats can run,” a blurb in the Missoula Weekly Gazette reported in January 1892. “Stages will run from Ravalli to Demersville, Kalispell and Columbia Falls daily except Sunday, leaving Ravalli at 5:30 a.m.”
Twenty-five years later, on Jan. 4, 1917, the Missoulian said the iced-over lake rendered travel from Polson to Kalispell “impassable so far as the water trip is concerned.”
“For the first time, so far as records are available, Flathead lake is frozen over thick enough for heavy traffic,” the Missoulian reported on March 4, 1922.
E.F. Mauzey, who had the Sunset Orchard on the east shore, “told of driving in a Ford across the lake on the ice from Woods bay to Polson.”
“Migratory Birds Face Starvation,” read the headline on Feb. 1, 1949.
“Feeding was carried on continually through (January,) but funds were soon exhausted, and more help is required, ” the story said. “Many dead ducks have been found around feeding places, many having nothing in their gullets except grit, showing that starvation was fatal.”
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On March 17, 1957, John A. Forssen provided a full-page look at a total freeze-over, which he asserted had happened “less than half a dozen times in the last quarter of a century, according to old-time residents of the area.”
“Two of the times were this winter and last,” he wrote.
A feature of the freeze of ’57 was the one day the entire lake was a skating rink.
“This is far more unusual than the freezing of the entire lake, because skating is almost always made impossible by snow on the ice. But two weeks ago today marked the end of a mild spell of weather which melted the snow, followed by a freeze which provided a smooth surface. The following day, snow fell once more and ruined the skating.
“Despite the short notice, many skaters took advantage of the unusual situation. On Big Arm Bay … skaters glided for miles. Some even skated all the way across the four-mile width of the bay.”
In frigid early 1979, staff writer JoAnn Speelman relayed the concerns of cherry farmers.
“In the mid-1940s, a prolonged cold snap not only killed many cherry blossoms but also damaged enough tissue in the trees to kill many of them,” she wrote on Jan. 11, a Thursday. “Flathead Lake was frozen over completely by Monday afternoon except for the areas in front of river inlets. The last time that happened, about 10 years ago, damage to buds resulted in the harvest of only a partial crop for the multi-million dollar business.”
In the century-plus annals of Missoulian reports of frozen-over Flatheads, it was left to reporter Don Schwennesen, a longtime East Shore resident, to describe what it looked like out there.
His dateline was Bigfork on Feb. 11, 1985.
“There's a 125,000-acre scenic wonder in western Montana this winter, something that people have gotten to see only perhaps a dozen times since the Flathead Valley was homesteaded,” Schwennesen wrote. “The surface of Flathead Lake has frozen into a great, desolate windblown expanse of ice and snow.
“It's a provocative sight, a transformation that spreads gradually for days over the shrinking surface of the open water. The expanding ice reverberates with eerie creaks, chirps and moans as the pressure ridges grind and buckle against each other.
“Enormous cracks seem to stretch for miles before the snow comes to cover them in textured white. Along the cracks, huge piles of sheet ice are wind-rowed like heaps of broken window glass. Thousands of tiny icicles glitter in long rows beneath the mounded rime demarking what was until last month the water's edge. Ice floes coat shoreline rocks that usually drip with spring water.”