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Inside the Outdoors: Frozen? Maybe…

Inside the Outdoors

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If you have a young child or young grandchild, there’s a good chance you know about “Frozen,” the movie, or its sequel, “Frozen II.” For those who don’t, Frozen is an animated musical adventure fantasy produced by Walt Disney, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Snow Queen. It is peopled with characters like Elsa, Olaf, Anna, Hans and Sven, which the many Minnesotans of Scandinavian heritage can readily identify with—in name, at least. Princess Elsa, one of the main characters, possesses magical powers to create and control ice and snow. Without being a plot spoiler, her most unusual gift proves to be a mixed blessing, to say the least.

Princess Elsa may have the ability to freeze things instantaneously, but Nature’s freeze-up process is a little more complicated and drawn-out here in the northland. That’s where we find ourselves now, with freeze-up still a work in progress. Some will find it melancholy to say goodbye to open water and the fishing, boating and hunting opportunities it provides. On the other hand, the arrival of cold temperatures and lake ice is ushering in a new set of recreational opportunities, ice fishing being chief among them.

Many small sloughs and marshes, and some smaller lakes, are already under a thin but growing cover of ice, thanks to a recent lengthy spell of nightly temperatures below freezing; some nights were in the teens, and even single digits above zero. We’re set up to have several days in the upper 30’s, and the possibility of breaking the 40-degree mark for a day or two. But that won’t have an appreciable effect in reversing what is now iced-over.

Nighttime temperatures will routinely drop back below freezing. The angle of the sun at the start of December is too shallow to deliver solar radiation capable of producing a melting effect. And the other condition that can keep water open even in freezing air temperatures—wind—can have no effect when ice prevents it from generating waves.

Last Saturday, the day before the finale to the 2021 duck hunting season in the state’s central zone, I spent an afternoon driving to several river boat access points. The hope was to find one that was not iced-in, and beyond which there might be enough open water to attract a few late migrating ducks; goldeneyes perhaps, buffleheads, or—desperate times demanding desperate measures—mergansers.

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The prospects for a hunt on the next and final day did not prove promising. But the excursion provided a measure of where things stand, ice-wise, in my neck of the woods. First stop was at a minimally-maintained public access on the Crow Wing River. There, only the narrowest tendril of open water rippled in midstream. Ice covered it virtually from bank to bank.

Back on the meandering county road, and heading downstream for another access point, I passed a broad impoundment. This “lake” owes its existence to a dam that backs up the river, and widens it many times over. Surprised to see a pickup in the ditch between the road and the impoundment, I slowed, veered onto the road shoulder, and scanned the silvery, mirror-flat surface. There, at least 150 yards from shore, was a dark square structure that could only be a portable ice fishing shelter.

I instinctively shook my head at the brazen confidence of an angler to be out there on this early ice. Granted, this is an impoundment, and is lake-like in most ways. But beneath that ice and that angler’s shelter, water moves downstream to its destination at the spillways of a dam, and once beyond it follows a twisting course to the Mississippi. Moving water is the enemy of safe ice, and I couldn’t suppress a small shiver as I imagined myself breaking through in a situation like this one.

Ice fishing and other on-the-ice activities are by and large safe winter pastimes, and fatalities are the exception that proves that rule. On the other hand, there have only been two winters since 1976 without one or more ice-related fatality. There were 10 in the winters of 1999 and 2003, 12 fatalities in the winter of 1987, 16 in the winters of 1980 and 1981 and 22 fatalities in the winter of 1983.

Almost all of these fatalities involved a vehicle—a snowmobile, all-terrain vehicle, car, truck or SUV—either breaking through the ice, or unsuspectingly traversing an area of open water. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources advises that it takes 4 inches of ice to be safe for foot traffic, 8 inches for a car and 12 inches for a vehicle of pickup truck weight. Some anglers, eager to be on the ice for what can be some of the best fishing of the season, may cheat on those guidelines. Sometimes they get away with it, sometimes not; to their regret—or the regret of their next of kin.

It’s also important to remember that ice thickness at one spot on a body of water may differ significantly from ice thickness at another. Wind and waves may keep one part of a lake open longer than another, and it takes time to “catch up” in thickness. Underwater springs, or a subtle current on a body of water through which a river or stream flows, can also contribute to uneven ice formation. Eventually, even these slower-to-freeze areas may be totally safe, but not always. It’s worth noting that the trend over recent years has been toward later freeze-ups and earlier thaws, and fewer weeks with lakes covered with ice in winter.

The best advice early in the ice fishing season is to travel on foot, wear some kind of flotation device, and check ice depth often as you shuffle out to your spot, near or far. No fish is worth being included in the roster of ice fatalities.

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Mike Rahn, columnist

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