This time of year most Montanans are usually only cutting holes in the ice to drop a fishing line through it. But there are a few crazy SCUBA divers out there eager to explore the water under the ice. Sara Wilkinson, a dive master, is one of them. And she talked Whitefish Police Department Assistant Chief Mike Ferda and a few others into exploring the waters beneath the ice at McGregor Lake. Here is a recap of their weekend courtesy of Sara:
These photos were taken over the course of an ice diving class held off the shore of McGregor Lake located near Marion, MT over the weekend of February 15-16, 2014. Ice diving in NW Montana is a great way to see your often frequented summer dive sites in a new light. Additionally, divers get a chance to brush up on skills, get some fun photo opportunities, and of course any time you get a few divers together the camaraderie can be memorable!
We stayed at the Lodge at McGregor Lake over the weekend and did 3 total dives over the course of the class. The proprietors of the Lodge are extremely accommodating to divers and provided us with a cabin close to the shore of the lake that we could leave our gear in overnight to dry (bring wood!). The Lodge is also a fantastic place for meals, drinks, and very friendly staff. Their rooms are warm, well decorated, and conveniently located close to the lake and restaurant/bar. Luckily for our group, the owners and employees have no problem with wet divers tromping through the restaurant looking for coffee or a restroom and always manage to make us feel welcome.
Our first two dives were on Saturday, and mother nature chose to cooperate that day with a little bit of sunshine, not a lot of wind and balmy temps of around 38 degrees F. Our group was made up of three instructors, one of whom was taking the class, two dive masters and another dive master candidate (also a student). The course consists of an educational portion, knowledge review and the practical portion. The students participate in dive planning, site and gear preparation, safety procedures, and of course the dives. The water temperature in McGregor lake this time of year hovers just a couple of degrees above freezing, which makes for a chilly dive, but with the right gear and a little luck with the weather the payoff for an ice dive is well worth the discomfort. The final dive on Sunday put everyone’s determination to the test, as we were visited by one of Montana’s not so infrequent winter storms with winds gusting over 25 MPH and blowing snow. (Didn’t affect the water – but the safety divers and line tenders were a little chilly!)
McGregor lake is distinctive when compared with many lakes in the area that are frequently visited by divers due to the fact that it is fed by an underground spring instead of creeks and rivers. The result is that the water has less turbidity throughout the year, making it one of the clearest lakes for diving year round. When it’s covered with ice and completely unaffected by wind and waves, the clarity of the water can be phenomenal. 35+ feet of visability is not uncommon. The local fauna generally doesn’t put in much of an appearance during winter dives, but there are still a few crawdads that the observant diver can see.
The beauty of the dive tends to be the opportunity to see the ice formations above and the way the light and bubbles play across the bottom of the ice.
Ice diving takes a lot of preparation, planning, and extra equipment – but it is a great way to experience something most people couldn’t even imagine. As with any overhead environment coupled with cold water, there is an additional layer of risk inherent with the sport, so always make sure you have the right training and equipment to tackle the dive.