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Inside the Outdoors: First ice is a timeless temptation

The process of a lake icing over is not always a continuous one. Ice begins to form, but may recede or break up with warming temperatures, a strong wind or both. Subtle currents, underwater springs, a trickle of stream in-flow, even a beaver's underwater highway from its lodge to the shore, can affect ice thickness. Illustration

Last weekend my wife and I and our Labrador retriever took a walk to enjoy what was predicted to be the warmer and sunnier of the weekend days, that being Saturday. We left the car in a boat launch parking lot at the end of a lake that's the site of the family cabin. Here the road is close to the lake, and you can walk its perimeter without trespassing. It's a lot quieter at this time of year, though there's a certain amount of traffic to and from a restaurant and pub just across from the boat landing.

Surprising for a lake this large and deep, ice could be seen from shore to shore, save for a small opening about 250 to 300 yards from the landing. In the parking lot was a pickup, behind which was a trailer ample enough for a large fishing boat. Bella and I walked down to the ramp, just because we're in the habit of it, and as we approached the ice-rimmed shore I spotted a boat bobbing in a pond-sized circle of open water in the distance. Sometimes it takes a few moments for evidence to tell a story. My first thought was that this boat belonged to a tardy lake property owner who had waited too long to take his boat out for winter storage. "Bet he's regretting that," was my fleeting thought.

Then my eyes focused more clearly on the winding trail of shattered ice leading away from the ramp to that small patch of open water. I heard voices that carried over the ice sheet. At that distance I couldn't discern their angling technique, but I knew that was why they were out there. Conventional wisdom decrees that "the bite" for walleyes is often best just after ice forms over a lake. These indomitable guys were on a frontier between open water angling and ice fishing!

Evening was approaching, and I've little doubt they believed that when the light level fell, there would be a movement to fish to shallower water. Whether that movement happened to align with the small disk of open water where their boat floated might be another matter. Regardless, I'm sure they were fortified with the optimism that buoys and inspires all fishermen who really mean it, and I was with them mentally even after our trio of two- and four-legged trekkers took the road leading south along the lake.

Over most of the lake the mirror-like surface was flat as a billiard table. But along the near shore, a stone's throw from the road we walked, the shoreline was a jumble of broken ice sheets two or more inches thick, evidence that early-forming ice had been driven aground be westerly winds. The process of a lake icing over is not always a continuous one. Ice begins to form, but may recede or break up with warming temperatures, a strong wind or both.

Open water in a lake's center should in theory should be the last to freeze and waters closer to shore should be the first to freeze, and the strongest. But subtle currents, underwater springs, a trickle of stream in-flow, even a beaver's underwater highway from its lodge to the shore, can affect ice thickness. "When is it thick enough?" is a question that will be asked at this time of the year as long as there are outdoors people who find our frozen lakes a playground for ice fishing, snowmobiling or riding their all-terrain-vehicle (ATV).

Every Minnesota winter sees through-the-ice accidents. Most involve vehicles breaking through ice that is not thick enough to support them. Most of those vehicles are the highway kind, heavy enough to break through where a person could stand safely, or the ice could support a snowmobile or ATV. Most such accidents do not result in fatalities, but in badly scared anglers, and a major expense to recover a submerged vehicle.

But with time and an exponential number of angling and trail-riding visits, the law of averages leads inevitably to fatalities, though typically few in number. The first lake ice-related fatality of the 2017 winter season in Minnesota happened last weekend on Upper Red Lake, northwest of Bemidji in Beltrami County. A young man and woman on an ATV are believed to have unsuspectingly driven the ATV into a patch of open water about a mile from shore.

No one saw the accident, nor was anyone there to come to their rescue. Their bodies were recovered in 12 feet of water. Evidence suggests that one or both of them tried unsuccessfully to pull themselves back onto the ice that rimmed the opening where they and their ATV entered the water.

Apart from the fact that great early winter walleye fishing on Upper Red Lake is attracting more and more anglers, thereby increasing the mishaps and rescues at that particular place, the attraction of getting out to fish or ride on the first good ice of the season is a constant. What is not a constant is the period of safe winter ice. The average dates when ice forms on Minnesota lakes and melts in spring are changing. It's imperceptible to most of us, but noticeable to those whose scientific discipline records such things.

Records of ice-on and ice-off dates on nine Minnesota, Wisconsin and New York lakes dating back as far as 1850 show this change, tracked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Each decade has seen the average ice-on date arrive later on all these lakes, changing by one-half to one-and-one-half days each decade. A half-day here and a half-day there may seem like no big deal. But small changes add up. Over 50 years the ice could be arriving up to a week later. Over a century the ice-on date could be two weeks later. All of these nine lakes are thawing earlier in spring. One extreme example from EPA record-keeping showed spring ice leaving an average of 24 days sooner than it did 110 years ago. If ice is leaving sooner in spring, it's probably forming later in fall.

What's the point to be made here? Don't assume that forming ice will be solid and safe by a certain date on the calendar, or remain safe until a certain date in spring. Resist the temptation to be the first one on the ice on your favorite lake. If you drive on the ice, roll down windows and unlock doors beforehand. Windows and locks may not work if your vehicle is submerged, and pressure may keep a door from opening. If you insist on walking or driving your ATV on marginally thick ice, don't be too proud to wear a personal flotation device and carry a pair of spike-studded "ice picks" to help pull yourself onto the ice if you fall through. Hypothermia can kill just as surely as drowning.

There's a winter-full of fun to be had on Minnesota ice. We can easily avoid becoming a statistic that disproves the rule.