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Unusual wintry mix weather creates dangerous roads, poor lake ice conditions

One area tow company saw between 100-150 service calls the last few days, while another has already surpassed its yearly average for ice recoveries -- or when a sunken vehicle has be pulled from the water -- with half the winter season left to go.

010120.N.BD.LakeIceConditions
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Last weekend may have served as a refresher course for central Minnesotans on all the possible implications of “wintry mix,” as Mother Nature blasted the area with an odd concoction of warm temperatures above freezing, coupled with a dump of snow, freezing rain and sleet that turned local roadways into a treacherous slurry.

Joe Albert, communications coordinator for the division of enforcement in St. Paul, said this winter’s unusual offerings of warm weather, heavy rainfall and blizzard conditions, means a thick layer of slush and snow has formed on top of lakes.

Cass County Sheriff Tom Burch said good ice conditions earlier in the year have regressed — particularly off unplowed routes on the ice — with deputies responding to a rash of sunken vehicles, fish houses, utility vehicles and snowmobiles on bodies of water in the county.

“We’re back in that rut of unseasonably warm weather. We’re seeing a lot of issues on our roads, on our lakes. We’re warning people — use caution, it’s just not good ice,” Burch said. “Even in a perfect year we have ice issues, but this is exceptional. It’s just a poor ice year and that creates some major safety concerns.”

Local municipalities and organizations also reported area lakes were adversely affected, presenting a significant hazard that’s claimed vehicles and equipment for more than a few Minnesotans this year. Officials repeatedly advised residents to be cautious and remain aware of unstable and shifting conditions outdoors.

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The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources have had their hands full, juggling law enforcement along water bodies and snowmobile trails while also aiding Minnesotans caught in ice thinned by unseasonably warm weather.

As such, the problem is two-fold — on one hand, snow means a layer of insulation is created, which warms and stunts the development of ice, while heavy snow accumulation can also mask thin ice, slush or even patches of open water. This has resulted in a host of incidences were vehicles, equipment or Minnesotans have broken through the ice across the state.

“We had some early ice, early cold weather and people were excited to get out there,” Albert said. “In a lot of places, it was always a little iffy. You get some snow and slush on top of the ice, it weakens it, it doesn’t develop like it should, then when you get tons of snow it really creates issues. It makes it really hard to get around.”

Albert said people need to keep in mind that weather, and, furthermore, ice, is always in a state of flux and subject to changes — some of them unstable and dangerous.

“Every year has its own challenges,” Albert said. “From the enforcement end, it’s always important for people to pay attention to conditions in the moment. Say you’re going out on the ice, things are going to change in the course of a day or a week, so while the ice might have been OK a week ago, that doesn't mean it’s going to be good today.”

Baxter Snowmobile Club

In the eyes of Dan Vogt, president of the Baxter Snowmobile Club, the storm of mixed snowfall and rain presents a significant setback, but a temporary one that could set the stage for fine snowmobiling conditions in the second half of the winter season.

Vogt noted slush and standing water have presented a difficult challenge for club members and their equipment as they work to clear and groom networks of trails throughout the Brainerd lakes area, but once the slush freezes it’ll create a compacted bottom layer of ice and snow that functions much like a foundational layer of pavement for motorists.

Vogt said area snowmobilers can help by packing the snow along trails currently inaccessible to groomers because of standing water in lower-level trails, ditches and depressions.

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“Once it freezes, it should make a nice base so long as we keep getting snow and the temperatures don’t warm up,” Vogt said. “It might be rough right now, but once we get some more layers of fresh snow, it should create conditions for some extremely great riding the next couple months.”

Tow companies

For tow companies in the lakes area, recent weather presented a treacherous situation for drivers — and even tow truck operators — both on the roadways and on lake ice.

“Please do NOT go on the ice with motorized vehicles,” a Dec. 26 Facebook Post by Collins Brothers Towing Inc stated. “We have had an over abundance of calls for ice recovery already this year! We usually average 30 a year and we are almost to that mark and it’s not even the end of December! We have had to turn down calls because ice was to unsafe for us to be on it and not worth our employees lives. We’ve had 10 in the last WEEK!”

Harry Ruikka, manager at West Brainerd Auto and Peterson Towing, said the unusual winter mix of freezing rain and snow caused a surge in rollovers, vehicles stuck in ditches, spinouts and other weather-related crashes — particularly along stretches of Highway 210 between Brainerd and Ironton and Brainerd to Pillager.

In the case of Brainerd to Ironton, newer stretches of asphalt are often very smooth and don’t have the rough wear and tear evident in older roads that creates traction. On the other hand, Ruikka noted the stretch between Pillager and Brainerd — primarily concrete — doesn’t absorb heat like black asphalt, especially along shaded portions of the road. Both roadways are prime areas for ice buildup as well.

All in all, West Brainerd Auto has responded to 100-150 service calls over the Dec. 28-29 weekend and into the early part of this week, Ruikka estimated.

“A lot of people in the ditches and getting stuck in the alleyways, going where they shouldn’t be going,” Ruikka said with a chuckle. “All that snowing, then raining, then snowing and raining again — nothing but a slush fest. Now, that it’s freezing, it’s not freezing hard, so all the heavy vehicles are breaking through and getting stuck.”

“Mail trucks are having a really hard time getting up by people’s mail boxes,” Ruikka added. “There’s been a lot of accidents with the black ice — not a lot of injuries — but people need to be careful. Remember, pull over and get out of the way of emergency vehicles.”

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GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at gabe.lagarde@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch .

Infobox

Safety precautions urged on lake ice

Tuesday, Dec. 31, the Cass County Sheriff’s Office issued a news release urging extreme caution on all area lakes, especially during the holidays, when people are utilizing area lakes for a wide variety of recreation purposes.

Residents are advised to remember the following safety information:

  • No ice should ever be considered safe.

  • Check existing ice conditions as you travel.

  • Check with local bait shops, resorts, gas stations and other fisherman for conditions.

  • Consider modes of transportation other than a motor vehicle — ATV, snowmobile or foot travel are good choices.

  • Do not travel on the lake after dark.

  • Always notify someone of the area you are traveling in and your expected return time.

  • Carry a cell phone.

  • Be familiar with the lake — carry a map.

  • If you need emergency assistance, call 911.

  • Consider a GPS unit to help you on and off the lake.

  • Avoid the use of alcohol.

  • Pay attention to warning signs that are posted. Remember warning signs cannot be posted everywhere.

Related Topics: BRAINERD LAKES AREA
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