While the Crow Wing County and Cass County sheriff's departments say no ice is ever totally safe, both agree it is probably best to avoid vehicles on area lakes.
While an early freeze elated ice anglers in late fall, what followed has since had a lasting effect on ice quality and safety.
“In a perfect winter or perfect world we like to see a good base of ice prior to any snow,” said Cass County Sheriff Tom Burch. “The small lakes froze and it looked like we were going to have good ice, then we got a lot of snow and that really deteriorated that ice quickly. As our bigger lakes froze we started to get some decent ice and then we got this last blast of wet, rainy, heavy snow and that really wreaks havoc on the ice, especially when there wasn't that much to start with.”
The wet, heavy snow has not only put a lot of weight on the ice that had begun to form, but it is insulating that ice against the cold, preventing it from freezing more solidly. Combine that with unseasonably warm temperatures and you have very risky ice.
The same conditions are present in Crow Wing County.
“The ice conditions are poor on most of our lakes within the county,” said Crow Wing County Capt. Joe Meyer. “We have had reports of snowmobiles going through the ice. We had reports of ATV and fish houses going through ice on different lakes. It just hasn't been cold enough weather for a long enough period of time to form ice that is ideal for winter activities.”
It would take a significant and long cold snap to change ice conditions now.
“It would take multiple, multiple days of subzero temperatures to create any additional ice,” Meyer said. “That would be over a long period of time. That's what it would take to create ice, an extended period of well below freezing temperatures.”
Even then, frozen slush is not the same as solid, clear ice.
“A lot of people misinterpret what the ice is,” Burch said. “You can have 4-5 inches of really solid ice and 6-10 inches of frozen snow/slush/water on top of it, misleading that there's a lot more ice, but that's not safe ice.”
Unfortunately for winter weather enthusiasts, these conditions might be here to stay.
“It's going to be an issue for us the rest of the season, I'm afraid,” Burch said.
Both departments absolutely recommend against driving on ice at this time.
“No driving of vehicles on any of our lakes,” Meyer said. “We would not recommend that at all. We advise strongly against that.”
Because of the risk of getting stuck on a lake with almost no way to get unstuck, that warning may extend to recreational vehicles.
“I would not even consider driving a motor vehicle on the ice this time of year in these conditions, even to the extent of snowmobiles and ATVs,” Burch said. “You can get stuck really easily in slushy snow or ice and then that creates an emergency.”
These same conditions forced the Pequot Lakes Brush Pilots and Gull Lake Snow Drifters snowmobile clubs to close the snowmobile trail between Pequot Lakes and Breezy Point for a couple of days. That trail reopened Saturday, Jan. 4.
On Jan. 2, an alert on the Brush Pilots' Facebook page read: "(A) Number of sleds have got stuck in the water running over the bridge and the swamp is opening up in a few spots." That forced the clubs to close the trail for a couple of days.
Even those who decide to walk on the ice need to do so cautiously.
“The ice is never safe, so do your research ahead of time,” Burch said. “Make sure things are safe, check ice depths and make sure someone knows where you are and have some way of communicating if something should happen.”
“If you do venture on the lake, be conscious and overprotective of yourself,” Meyer said. “Constantly check the ice thickness as you proceed on the lake and stay away from creeks and running water areas. Those are always thinner ice than the main lake.”
The Brainerd Jaycees are moving forward with plans to host their 30th annual ice fishing extravaganza Saturday, Jan. 25, on Gull Lake's Hole-in-the-Bay just south of Nisswa, according to a story in the Tuesday, Jan. 7, Brainerd Dispatch.
Jeff Baillif, ice fishing contest chairperson, told the Dispatch that Gull Lake has good, quality ice, but it is not thick enough yet to host the annual contest if it were scheduled this week.
“The forecast is looking good and there is hardly any snow on the lake,” Baillif said, as temperatures this week are expected to dip below zero. "The forecast is looking good right now but we are in that gray area ... but with the amount of ice we have right now there is a very, very good chance for us to have this contest on the 25th."
“At the end of the day, it is up to the sheriff’s office to decide. We’ve been working with them and we will keep monitoring the ice. I can’t guarantee anything at this point, as it all depends on Mother Nature does. We’re crossing our fingers that we will have enough ice for the contest.”