INVERMERE, B.C. – It was one of those picture-perfect, blue sky days. By midafternoon the temperature had warmed up to about 17 degrees and Lake Windermere was teeming with activity.
Several hundred people were taking advantage of the mild winter day and the on-ice facilities that stretch from Kinsmen Beach at Invermere to Indian Beach at Windermere. They were skating, skiing, ice fishing, walking, golfing, tubing, cycling, playing hockey, enjoying barbecues or simply socializing.
They were, in the words of Invermere Mayor Gerry Taft, enjoying the quality of life that brought them to the community or keeps them here.
“It’s why a lot of people live here,” Taft said of Lake Windermere and the activities it offers both summer and winter. “They view that as their playground. Everyone seems to have their own activity, so it really is their playground.”
The nearly 9-mile-long Lake Windermere is a summertime haven with its warm water, sandy beaches and ideal temperatures. Over the years it has also become a wintertime attraction for locals and visitors who can get their daily dose of vitamin D while enjoying the magnificent scenery of the Rocky and Purcell mountain ranges that rim the valley.
There are a number of events through the winter, including Bonspiel on the Lake, now in its 30th year and with 256 curlers regarded as the largest outdoor curling event in Canada; the B.C. Western Regional Pond Hockey Tournament that this year attracted 132 players; annual snow golf tournaments; fishing derbies; and, new this year, a car rally.
“Slowly the word is leaking out that it’s something visitors can do, a reason to come here in the winter as well as the summer,” Taft said. “Obviously the lake is very busy in the summer. Now we’re trying to let people know what a wonderful recreational asset it is in the winter as well.”
The focal point on the lake last weekend was the pond hockey tournament, with 22 six-player teams participating, including teams from Spokane and as far away as Quebec.
One of the Spokane teams was John McLean and his Dishman Dodge teammates, who could hardly stop smiling, laughing and celebrating after their first victory in the three years they’ve played in the tournament.
“That was our first win ever, and we beat the other Spokane team,” McLean said after the one-goal victory. “We will take it and run.”
McLean said the five-hour-plus drive was well worth it.
“Look at the event; look at the weather,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. This is a great weekend to have the guys together. There are good activities and a lot of fun. Invermere is such a great community. It’s always fun to visit – winter and summer – great food, great accommodations, and consistently good weather.”
Invermere residents – there are about 4,000 in the town and surrounding the lake – have been using the lake since the 1980s, but it has only been in recent years that the usage has grown and activities have been organized. The Toby Creek Nordic Club sets tracks for cross-country skiing alongside the 12-mile route they also clear for skating, called the Whiteway.
“It’s created such a demand from people, they want more of it and they want it to be plowed and maintained more often and to a better quality,” Taft said of the Whiteway that runs in a loop between Invermere and Windermere.
While the community cleans and maintains areas near the Invermere beach for skating and shinny hockey, residents who live alongside the lake build their own rinks, cleaning off areas in front of their houses and flooding the rinks using ice augers and pumps.
It’s not just fun and games. Many Windermere residents who work in Invermere make the daily commute between communities along an ice road on the lake.
Ice fishing remains popular all winter, with dozens of ice fishing shacks residing in groups at various points of the lake looking like a scene from the movie “Grumpy Old Men.”
“There’s lots of shacks and lots of people out there,” Taft said. “I’m not sure how much fish they actually catch, but they’re having fun. It’s a social thing. I wager there’s more beer than fish.”
Ken Wilder, executive director of Tourism Invermere Panorama, said the ice fishing is, like most of the other activities, a family thing.
“The kids have a ball fishing,” he said. “Then the family barbecues out on the ice. It’s a big social thing.”
There’s huge potential for future growth, given the size of the lake and the demand. There’s been a long waiting list for the curling for years, and the pond hockey tournament has grown from 70 players to 132 in just three winters.
“We have a very large lake behind us, so in terms of physical capacity we can easily get up to 50, 60 teams,” said tournament coordinator John Reed. “(The lake is) an asset that it’s important for the locals to use and share, and from a marketing standpoint we get a lot of coverage from local, regional and sometimes national media. People come in … they spend money, so the economic spinoff is significant.”
With the lake as long as it is, there’s plenty of room for everyone, even when the car rally was held in the middle of the lake and there were a few hundred people out participating in other activities. The on-ice facilities are maintained until late February or early March, depending on the weather.