Skip to main content

Boreal Community Media

Too early for early ice: Officials say err on the side of caution and remain off the ice

Nov 12, 2019 07:23PM ● By Editor
A flock of Canadian geese swim in the area where the Mississippi River flows into Lake Bemidji on Tuesday morning. Photo: Annalise Braught | Bemidji Pioneer

By Bria Barton of the Bemidji Pioneer- November 12, 2019

With unseasonably cold weather bringing freezing temperatures to the area, overeager anglers may be considering readying their fishing rods and ice houses to take advantage of newly frozen lakes and ponds around town. 

But Pete Boulay, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources climatologist, said that although “this is one of the colder starts to November that we’ve had in quite a few years,” anglers and curious individuals should err on the side of caution and remain off the ice for now.

“The ice is very new and people shouldn’t be out on it. How often is ice ready for people to go out on it this time of year?” Boulay said. “It almost never is.”

Last year, there were five ice-related fatalities in Minnesota. 

And over the weekend, officials in Isanti County -- about an hour north of the Twin Cities -- responded to calls of a man falling through ice on Skogman Lake. The man, who was able to pull himself out of the icy water, was reportedly attempting to ice fish.

Despite single-digit temperatures and Lake Bemidji showing signs of ice coverage, Boulay said the Minnesota State Climatology Office has been receiving ice in reports for mostly small and medium-size lakes around the state. 

“You need the right conditions for ice to form and one of them is lack of wind,” Boulay said. “It’s been fairly windy, so any lakes with a sizeable fetch to them have been hard to freeze over -- like Lake Bemidji. The waves prevent the ice from forming.”

An ice-in occurs when an entire lake is frozen over for the first time and the ice cover remains through winter, but Boulay questions whether these reports are true ice-ins given past irregular weather conditions for the season.

“Ice-in is always a tricky business. The problem is an ice in might be temporary depending on how the weather pans out,” Boulay said. “Some lakes are freezing over early like last year, but then we had a December that was well above normal last year. So, I’m always a little hesitant to make too big of a deal about lake ice because it may not be permanent.”

Boulay, who helps manage the Minnesota DNR’s catalog of ice-ins and ice-outs, said this uncertainty is why ice in dates are not posted in real time for the current year on the DNR’s website. 

“Ice is never 100 percent safe, and the report probably won’t be posted until late December,” Boulay said. “People might be disappointed because they want to see the progress, but it’s too tentative.”

The earliest date Lake Bemidji experienced a true ice-in was Nov. 4, 1991, which Boulay said was a result of the aftermath of the Halloween Blizzard of 1991. Lake Bemidji has a median ice-in date of Nov. 27, according to the Minnesota DNR’s records of the lake dating back to 1958. 

Last year, Lake Bemidji saw an ice-in on Nov. 20, but Boulay said predicting a date this year would be like “trying to predict beyond a 10-day forecast” -- even for a body of water the climatologist dubs “one of the best lakes with records of ice-in and ice-out in the state.”

“Not too many places have that good of an ice in record,” he added. “I wish I could tell you what the weather will be like in December but we don’t really know. Anything could happen between now and New Year’s.”

According to the DNR, there’s really no sure answer as to when ice is safe, and an individual “can't judge the strength of ice just by its appearance, age, thickness, temperature, or whether or not the ice is covered with snow.” Additionally, the DNR does not track the thickness of ice, so it’s not recommended that ice in dates be used to track ice thickness for recreational use. 

Yet with temperatures expected to be above freezing next week, it’s unclear if Lake Bemidji will get its official ice-in date before November’s end. However, Boulay recommends playing it safe rather than jumping the gun when it comes to participating in activities on the lake’s ice. 

“I always take the word of caution with any ice. Every year is different and every ice freeze up is different,” Boulay said. “My advice to people is to talk to the local bait store nearest the lake because they tend to know the most about it, and call ahead before you go.”

Tips for surviving a fall through ice on foot, according to the Minnesota DNR: 

  • Don't remove your winter clothing. Heavy clothes won't drag you down, but instead can trap air to provide warmth and flotation.

  • Turn toward the direction you came. That’s probably the strongest ice.

  • Place your hands and arms on the unbroken surface. This is where a pair of nails, sharpened screwdrivers or ice picks come in handy in providing the extra traction you need to pull yourself up onto the ice.

  • Kick your feet and dig in your ice picks to work your way back onto the solid ice. If your clothes have trapped a lot of water, you may have to lift yourself partially out of the water on your elbows to let the water drain before starting forward.

  • Lie flat on the ice once you are out and roll away from the hole to keep your weight spread out. This may help prevent you from breaking through again.

  • Get to a warm, dry, sheltered area and re-warm yourself immediately. In moderate to severe cases of cold water hypothermia, you must seek medical attention.

Minimum ice thickness levels, according to the Minnesota DNR:

  • Ice fishing and on foot activities: 4 inches.

  • Snowmobile and ATV use: 5 to 7 inches.

  • Driving cars or small pickup trucks: 8 to 12 inches.

  • Driving larger trucks: 12 to 15 inches.

Useful ice safety information to keep in mind, according to the Minnesota DNR: 

  • New ice is usually stronger than old ice. Four inches of clear, newly-formed ice may support one person on foot, while a foot or more of old, partially-thawed ice may not.

  • Ice seldom freezes uniformly. It may be a foot thick in one location and only an inch or two just a few feet away.

  • Ice formed over flowing water and currents is often dangerous. This is especially true near streams, bridges and culverts. 

  • The insulating effect of snow slows down the freezing process. The extra weight also reduces how much weight the ice sheet can support. Also, ice near shore can be weaker than ice that is farther out.

  • Booming and cracking ice isn't necessarily dangerous. It only means that the ice is expanding and contracting as the temperature changes.

  • Schools of fish or flocks of waterfowl can also adversely affect the relative safety of ice.The movement of fish can bring warm water up from the bottom of the lake. 

To read the original article and read related reporting, follow this link to the Bemidji Pioneer website.
Boreal Ship Spotter - larger view here