Local law enforcement officials are once again advising those who are venturing out on the ice this winter to never consider ice totally safe.
This year's cold temperatures and late, light snowfall have provided the optimal conditions to create what is commonly known as good ice. Little snowfall and very cold temperatures create hard ice with fewer weaknesses, whereas ice with a thick layer of snow insulation is generally cloudy looking, weaker and even spongy.
However, that doesn't mean people should be careless on the ice.
"Due to lack of snow so far this year we're seeing good quality ice. Hopefully the weather keeps this trend and builds more ice to use throughout the rest of the winter. We've heard a lot of reports of good quality ice," said Cass County Sheriff Tom Burch. "We always say no ice is safe, but we encourage people utilizing the lakes to practice good safety precautions."
Cass County has not had many reports of people breaking through the ice this year. Other counties have had some incidents, including Crow Wing County. On Sunday, Dec. 27, two anglers broke through the ice on Platte Lake in the southeast part of the county with their ATV and fish house, which remain in the water.
"Nobody got injured," said Capt. Andy Galles, with the Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office. "They got wet and cold."
Crow Wing County Sheriff Scott Goddard reminded people in a news release that ice thickness varies from lake to lake and can change overnight. He asks people to be vigilant on checking the thickness of the ice as they venture out onto the lakes.
So far most traffic on the ice has been foot traffic and small ATVs. Though ice conditions differ greatly from lake to lake or even bay to bay on some lakes, Burch said it is likely too early for driving larger vehicles on area lakes.
Even those on foot should be cautious, however, and seek advice from knowledgeable bait store owners, fishing guides, experienced ice anglers and those in the know. They should also check depths regularly and be aware of each lake's weak points due to springs, beaver runs and other hazards.
"Definitely take it lake by lake. Sometimes foot by foot, depending on the thickness. I can drill with my auger or chisel down and have 10-12 inches and because of some of the uniqueness of some of our lakes with active springs or running water underneath, you might only have two, three or four inches a short distance away."
— Capt. Andy Galles, Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office
"Definitely take it lake by lake," Galles said. "Sometimes foot by foot, depending on the thickness. I can drill with my auger or chisel down and have 10-12 inches and because of some of the uniqueness of some of our lakes with active springs or running water underneath, you might only have two, three or four inches a short distance away."
"Just make sure you check the ice before you go out," Burch said. "Make sure there's no slush, ice crack and practice good safety procedures. If there's doubt, don't do it."
This is especially important when navigating the lake in the dark when it might be harder to recognize the more hazardous areas as you travel. The incident on Platte Lake happened at night.
"When you're in the dark that makes it more unique," Galles said. "When traveling on the lake in the dark you need to be extra diligent in making sure you're getting quality ice, especially if you are unfamiliar with the area."
Certain lakes have sections that remain particularly hazardous throughout the winter. Loon Lake near Pequot Lakes has experienced weak ice due to aeration, Round Lake near Nisswa has a channel where the ice is thinner, and Gull Lake has channels and narrows where the ice is never too thick.
There are many safety precautions for those venturing onto the lakes.
"Make sure someone, a friend or family member, knows where you're going and what time you are returning. That way if something does happen we can help you."
— Cass County Sheriff Tom Burch
"Make sure someone, a friend or family member, knows where you're going and what time you are returning," Burch said. "That way if something does happen we can help you."
That could include not only telling family what lake you are going onto, but also where you plan to enter and exit the lake.
"Let people know if you're headed out to Gull Lake on the Government access point or the Hole-in-the-Day access point and then give a general time you should be expected back," Galles said.
Burch also advised taking precautions to prevent injuries from falls. Lots of safety gear comes in the form of what you wear or carry on the lake.
"This time of year with little snow the ice is very slippery," Burch said. "We encourage people to wear cleats to prevent falls and getting hurt. Flotation devices are a great tool. A lot of people carry ice picks so if they should go through they can still get back out because they have the ability to scrape their way back onto the ice. The biggest thing is probably ice checking and making sure someone knows where you are, what you're doing and when you'll return."
"Definitely dress for the occasion," Galles said. "You don't want to go out in shorts. You need something to survive the elements if you should go through. Cell phones are a big safety net for people if they are ever stranded on ice or go through."
There are also precautions to be taken while placing fish houses on the ice or parking vehicles. The closer they are together, the more stress there is on that section of ice. It's also wise for fish houses to be moved from time to time throughout the winter. Most important, however, is to keep your priorities straight.
"No fish are worth losing a vehicle and for sure not worth getting wet, cold or losing your life," Galles said.
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.