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Inside the Outdoors: Our ‘Miracle on Ice’ is an annual event

Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn

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To many Minnesotans—especially those who have an interest in ice hockey—the Miracle on Ice will forever be the most important subplot of the 1980 Winter Olympics. It will be the story of the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team defeating the next-to-unstoppable Russian bear on their way to the ultimate Olympic prize, the gold medal.

But there’s another amazing—if not miraculous—event in which ice is the central character. It is the transformation that has so recently taken place on our lakes, wetlands and all but the fastest moving rivers and streams. No matter how often we may have witnessed Nature’s cycle of “making ice,” this molecular miracle is always awaited with excitement and high expectations. It ushers in a radical change in our angling. It opens a new landscape—a frozen waterscape—for travel by snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle. If calm winds allow lakes and ponds to freeze level and smooth, they become a magnet for ice skaters.

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As Nature’s processes go, ice-up is a metamorphosis as radical as a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, or a tadpole becoming a frog. It’s under-appreciated by those of us who live in the snow and ice belt, perhaps because it happens like clockwork each year, and is visible all around us. We take it for granted, and fail to be impressed by the magnitude of the transition.

Water is a dynamic force. When it falls in great quantities it can cause devastating floods. When driven by wind, it can sink great ships on Lake Superior. Flowing through the turbines of a dam, water’s energy can light and power entire regions. Yet this powerful force is tamed and immobilized by falling temperature alone!

Temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit rob water molecules of most of their energy. Instead of flowing freely, the molecules stick together, and what we see is sheets of ice, or icicles where water freezes as it falls. A scientist will tell you that those hydrogen and oxygen molecules in ice are actually still in motion; just too slowly to be seen. That’s a bit difficult to fathom as your auger cuts through 30 inches of solid ice as you prepare to fish!

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The features of a body of water—its depth, size, shape, sometimes even its vegetation—have a lot to do with how soon it will freeze when temperatures plummet. Some of the shallow, wild rice-filled lakes where I hunt ducks had a coating of ice before the last week of October. Such waters cool more rapidly than deeper waters, and dense stands of rice dampen the effect of wind that might otherwise help to keep them open. It’s not uncommon for a warm spell to open them up again, but by then the waterfowl that have been feeding there may have moved on.

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Larger and deeper lakes, especially those whose shape exposes them to unimpeded wind, will typically be the last to become ice-bound. That was the case with the lake that for the last 70 years has been the site of our family cabin. Large in acreage, deep, with few islands or deep coves, and wide at most points, it tends not to become ice covered until the end of November. I’ve hunted ducks here on the last day of the season, when the only birds to zoom over the decoys were late-migrating goldeneyes or mergansers, species that eat more aquatic animal life than plants, and therefore favor the deeper, late-freezing waters where such forage is most abundant.

It is surprising how—literally sometimes overnight—a lake can go from open to icebound. On Wednesday, the last day of November, my wife and I walked a road near our lake’s eastern end, in sub-freezing temperatures and a fierce wind. We watched whitecaps as they neared the end of their march toward the eastern extremity of the lake’s nearly 3,000 acre expanse. A narrow border of ice that had formed along that eastern shore was being ground to pieces, tinkling like broken glass as breaking waves drove it into the sand. What signs of ice there had been, were fast disappearing.

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Yet next morning, after a night during which the wind died, the gathering light at dawn showed not a wave upon the lake’s surface; it was ice, as far as the eye could see. The explanation for this overnight change is that the lake’s surface water had been thoroughly cooled by sustained cold temperatures and the mixing effect of wind. The water was virtually at the freezing point, and needed only a halt to the wind for the transformation to be complete.

Now begins the exciting but potentially dangerous time when ice thickness is gradually building, transitioning from being a trap for the unwary, to a surface solid enough to fish and play on. Different personalities react to this situation in very different ways. Some are risk takers, or seem to believe that accidents—including ice-related accidents—always happen to someone else. Others play it safe.

Already this year, we heard of some 200 anglers stranded and in need of rescue when early ice on Upper Red Lake in Beltrami County broke free from the shoreline, and drifted out into still-open water. In 2017, a young man and young woman died when their all-terrain vehicle (ATV) fell into open water on Upper Red Lake in late November. Closer to home, in 2018, two anglers died on the lake that connects to our lake when the ATV on which they were riding broke through the ice in early December.

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Photo illustration / Shutterstock.com

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) annually warns of the danger posed by early winter ice. It recommends at least four inches of ice to safely support an adult, 5-7 inches for a snowmobile or small ATV, 9-10 inches for a small car or SUV, 16-17 inches for a heavy duty truck and 20 inches for a truck pulling a trailerable “wheelhouse” style ice fishing shelter.

The problem is that ice may initially form unevenly at different locations on the same lake, due to such factors as current, underwater springs, distance from shore, etc. Testing depth in one location with your augur or ice “spud” is no guarantee that it will be the same elsewhere. Those who venture out on potentially weak early ice on foot, or on an ATV, should wear a flotation vest or garment, planning for the worst, even though they may expect the best.

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As my wife put it when we later looked out on portable shelters and shelterless anglers standing 80 or 100 yards offshore, on just the fourth day after our lake’s ice-up, “No fish is worth dying for.”

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Mike Rahn, columnist

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