The foot of snow that fell in the Park Rapids area last weekend has slowed ice formation on lakes and made it difficult to determine where unstable ice is located.
“What we had was first the initial really nice freeze we had come through that was creating some nice solid new ice that you want to see,” said Lisa Dugan, recreation outreach coordinator for the enforcement division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in St. Paul. “With the warm-up and snow that came through, it really slowed down the freezing process and made a lot of the ice that was already formed unstable.
“The snow creates an insulating effect and slows down the freezing process, so it’s going to take more time for the ice to form. There’s also the extra weight of the snow that you have to take into consideration when figuring how much weight the ice can support. If you choose to recreate on the snow, you really need to take that into consideration.”
Dugan said when measuring the thickness of the ice, the snow needs to be cleared away first.
She explained that many factors influence ice formation.
“Ice never really freezes uniformly in the first place,” she said. “There are so many things to take into consideration – the size of the body of water, if there are currents or streams coming through the area where you are. Those kinds of things will slow down the formation of the ice. There is so much going on underneath the ice that we don’t see.”
She said aeration systems and other known hazards cannot be seen when covered with a foot of snow.
“A lot of the large cracks are covered up, if there are depressions or pressure areas in the ice, that would be signs of areas to avoid, but with all the snow it covers them up and they aren’t visible,” she said.
Although there is a reporting system on the DNR website for “ice-in” on lakes in the state, people need to take precautions on those lakes, too.
“Ice-in means someone reported that the lake is frozen solid,” she said. “But there are so many variables to take into consideration and it changes so much throughout the day. If it is a body of water that you aren’t familiar with, definitely check with the local experts to see where the hazards are. Don’t go out at night, stay away from alcohol and stay in areas you are more familiar with.”
Experts can be staff at bait shops, locals who live on the lake or resort owners.
Dugan emphasized the ice is never 100 percent safe, even when temperatures have been consistently very cold.
“Your safety is your responsibility,” she said. “Don’t take anybody’s word for the conditions that are out there without checking for yourself. We tend to turn to social media to see what people are reporting for ice thickness, but that changes with wind conditions on larger bodies of water. If the wind shifts and the lake isn’t fully iced in, that could change the conditions in a short amount of time.
“Always take safety precautions if you do choose to go out on the ice, like wearing a life jacket, and bring ice picks, because those small pieces of equipment can save your life should you fall through.”
She said people walking out on the lake should bring an ice chisel and measure the ice consistently.
“As you’re walking, you should be pounding with the ice chisel to see if it’s breaking through and how thick the ice is,” she said. “If you’re taking a snowmobile or 4-wheeler out later in the winter when the ice is thick enough, you should check at least every 150 feet to make sure that you still have adequate ice underneath you.”
She said it is especially dangerous to go out riding snowmobiles or ATVs at night, because if you are driving faster than what your headlights illuminate, you may hit open water without even seeing it.
“Outdriving your headlights is a hazard,” she said. “If you are taking those vehicles out on the ice at night, be sure you’re driving at a speed where you have enough stopping distance should something come up like open water.”
She said in the past two years all of the ice fatalities that occurred in the state have been on an ATV or snowmobile, except for one skid loader. In the 2018-19 season, there were five ice fatalities and in 2017-18 there were six deaths.
“Following somebody else’s snowmobile or ATV tracks doesn’t mean the ice is safe now for you to go,” she said. “If you’re at a resort, we recommend staying on the ice roads.”