With daytime temperatures still climbing above freezing even in the northern parts of the state, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is reminding outdoor enthusiasts to stay clear of early ice and use extreme caution when recreating on dangerously cold water.
Although some locations in the northern and western regions of the state were reporting ice formation at the end of November, the recent fluctuations in weather have led to degraded ice conditions and warnings from public safety officials to stay off the ice until at least 4 inches of new, clear ice is present.
"No fish is worth the risk of going through thin ice," said DNR Conservation Officer Lt. Adam Block. "At this point, it is going to take several consecutive days of below-freezing temperatures before enough solid ice has formed to support foot traffic, and even longer before ATVs and snowmobiles should be on the ice."
A recent tragedy occurred in northern Minnesota when two anglers lost their lives after breaking through thin ice on their ATV. Several emergency ice rescues have also taken place over the last few weeks. Last winter, two people died after breaking through the ice.
Block stressed that once ice formation picks up again, it will be important to stay vigilant about safety on the ice, since conditions can be unpredictable and vary greatly even on the same body of water.
"In addition to checking conditions locally and being prepared with an ice safety kit, anyone recreating on hard water should be wearing a life jacket," Block said. "A life jacket is the one piece of equipment that exponentially increases your odds of not drowning from cold water shock, hypothermia or exhaustion should you fall through the ice."
General ice safety guidelines
No ice can ever be considered "safe ice," but following these guidelines can help minimize the risk:
• Carry ice picks, rope, an ice chisel and tape measure.
• Check ice thickness at regular intervals — conditions can change quickly.
• Bring a cell phone or personal locator beacon.
• Don't go out alone; let someone know the plan and expected return time.
• Always wear a life jacket on the ice (except when in a vehicle).
• Before heading out, inquire about conditions and known hazards with local experts.
Open water danger
The lack of ice cover means many bodies of water in the state still have open water accessible to boaters. However, late season anglers, boaters and paddlers are cautioned that a life jacket is an absolute must on cold water.
"A fall into extremely cold water can incapacitate you within seconds," said Lisa Dugan, DNR recreation safety outreach coordinator. "Air temperatures have been relatively mild, but don't let that deceive you. Water temperatures are dangerously cold across the entire state, which means it's more important than ever to wear that life jacket."
State statistics show that one-third of boating fatalities typically occurred during the "cold water season," and that in the vast majority of cases the cause of death is drowning due to not wearing a life jacket.
So far in 2017, three boaters have died on cold water, and 12 total boating fatalities have been reported.
"The last three years boaters have enjoyed extended seasons with mild fall temperatures and early ice out in the spring," Dugan said. "With increased days on the water came higher fatality numbers and a dangerous trend, which should not be ignored. Ten of the 12 deaths involved male boaters who sadly drowned while not wearing a life jacket. This is a continuing and troubling trend that will only plateau or reverse if boaters in that high-risk demographic choose to put safety first by putting on their life jacket."
Lakes with aeration systems
Aeration creates areas of thin ice and open water that are extremely hazardous to people and pets. Open water areas can shift or change shapes depending on weather conditions, and leaks may develop in airlines, creating other areas of weak ice or open water.
The updated list of aerated lakes and more information is available at mndnr.gov/eco/lakeaeration.
"We're urging people to use caution anytime they venture onto lake ice, especially at night," said Amanda Yourd, DNR hydrologist and aeration coordinator. "Extreme care should be taken on aerated lakes. Watch for the large orange and black warning signs at high-use public accesses and the required thin ice signs around open water areas."
Aeration systems help prevent winterkill of fish populations by adding oxygen to the lake, and in certain situations to protect shorelines from ice damage. They are generally operated from the time the lakes freeze until the ice breaks up in the spring. About 280 lakes will have aeration systems operating on them this winter. Private hatchery operators also use aeration systems, usually on small lakes without public accesses.