The Cutler Lake skaters

Fresh powder blanketed the Paradise Valley Saturday morning, as a line of vehicles bounced up the windy section of the road that is Old Yellowstone Trail. The walk down the steep path to the frozen lake shore was made more precarious by giant, lumpy duffel bags loaded down with helmets, pads and sticks. One person even went to the trouble to haul three large tree stumps and a rectangular board to slap on top of them — the components for the perfect bench to lace up skates. 

 
Jim Hebert laces up his skates on Cutler Lake, 
Saturday morning.

 

Cutler Lake has now served for over a decade as the spot for Gardiner-area hockey enthusiasts. The recent cold snap made quality hockey possible again last weekend. The skaters dubbed the ice as “phenomenal” Saturday morning. Nary a nick or crack could be detected before the puck hit the ice. Despite the brilliant sunshine, sub-teen temperatures assured the ice wouldn’t grow soft today. 

Equipped with a “redneck zamboni,” some of the players made the bouncy trip up the road the night before to resurface the ice in preparation for Saturday’s game. The Cutler Lake skaters’ “zamboni” is actually a sort of drilling rig fitted with a pump. A hole is drilled in the ice to the water, which is then pumped through a hose to the designated rink area, so a thin sheet of water could fill in any gouges. 

 

A few stray pucks are corralled in the net as goalie Jim Hebert waits for some action on his end of the rink. 

 

Weather permitting, every Saturday and Sunday the skaters will gather to play hockey at 11 a.m. 

“We’ve had a lot better skaters over the past five years,” Joe Lang, a longtime player at Cutler said. “But everyone is welcome.”

Brad Bulin is new to Cutler and to ice skating. But he has learned quickly from his fellow players.

“Now I know how to stop — I can go out there and not hurt anybody,” Bulin joked.

The U.S. Forest Service purchased the land surrounding the lake from Church Universal Triumphant around 2000. The spots’ potential for skating and hockey was realized the following winter, and the new public land created a home base for the “Cutler Lake Fighting Perch.” A fierce-looking orange fish biting a hockey stick in half was emblazoned on the jerseys many of Saturday’s skaters. The perches glare on the front of the jersey is almost as intense as the players when the game pace picks up. 

Over the years, Cutler Lake has seen hockey enthusiasts originating from all parts of the country. 

Carolyn Harwood learned to skate when she was 3 on a backyard rink at her childhood home in Michigan. She enjoys the picturesque backdrop Montana provides for recreation. 

“There’s not a place in Michigan you can skate surrounded by mountains,” Harwood said. “So it’s sweet.”

Once the game is in full swing, a fair share of friendly trash talk is exchanged. And the play can intensify in turn until blood is drawn — literally. 

“As you can tell, we have no fun out here,” Harwood laughed. 

Sometimes, the Cutler Lake skaters hold a barbecue out on the ice, and on cloudless nights, they have held skates under the light of the full moon. 

At the end of play Saturday, the players exchanged their hockey sticks for snow shovels. In a synchronized fashion, they skated in neat concentric circles to clear the rink of ice shavings and loose snow. They will be back next weekend.

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Hunter D’Antuono may be reached at photo@livent.net.

BELOW: Carolyn Harwood and Joe Lang fight for the puck as Laurel Koller and  Brian Ertel look on during a hockey match on Cutler Lake, Saturday afternoon. Hockey enthusiasts have gathered for over 10 years to play at the lake.

 

BELOW: The Cutler Lake skating area as seen from above through a tangle of sagebrush.