Never trust lake ice
The winter wonderland that is now the Detroit Lakes area is open for business -- an idea that can be heard outside with the rumble of the snowmobiles and the grumble of the ice augers. But local authorities warn winter fun should be accompanied by extreme caution right now.
"There are a lot of lakes where there is still open water where it just hasn't frozen over yet," said Becker County Chief Deputy John Sieling, who says the biggest misconception is that people think just because they see vehicle tracks going across a lake, it must be safe.
Sieling reminds anybody out on area lakes that to drive a regular vehicle, there should be 10 to 12 inches of solid ice; for snowmobiles and ATV's there should be six to eight inches; for walking there should be four to six inches.
And just because ice houses and pickups are now sitting on Little Detroit, doesn't mean it's free game everywhere.
Minnesota DNR Conservation Officer Chris Vinton says what makes iced-over lakes dangerous is that the thickness on them can vary so dramatically from lake to lake ... even those right next to each other.
"Right now we're seeing ice thickness of anywhere from six to 14 inches, but that doesn't just change from one lake to another, it can vary like that only feet away," said Vinton, adding that ice is never safe. He says not only should fishermen do their own testing to see how far the ice goes down before setting up shop, but the resorts that sit on the lakes are a great source of information.
Staying "on the beaten path" is also a good idea, according to experts who say roads on the lakes are usually plowed by some of those resort owners or by area anglers or lake association members who know the lakes well. They typically have a good idea where to go and more importantly, where not to go.
"For instance, there's a spot out behind the bowling alley (in Detroit Lakes) where the Pelican River runs down to Muskrat Lake where we've a had issues in the past because that running water underneath the ice erodes it from the bottom up, and so we've had a snowmobiler go down there," said Sieling, who warns not only are there thin spots due to other issues like springs or excessive vegetation, but also open spots purposefully kept there by sportsman's clubs.
"They'll put in aerators to oxygenize the water for the fish," explained Sieling, "it not only keeps that spot open water, but it makes the ice around it thinner, and so sometimes what we'll see is people getting curious and either walking or driving right up to it to check it out, and that's when you can run into some problems."
Snowmobilers can also literally run into problems when ice ridges form on spots where the expanding ice cracks open and re-freezes, making for dangerous ice barriers that are often very hard to see at night.
"And they can form very quickly," said Sieling, who says that happened to him one night, even as he followed his original tracks back.
"When we came up on it, we stopped, got off and checked it out, and I'm glad we did because on the other side of it was open water that wasn't there when we went out."
Vinton says tragedy can be avoided by preparing to fall through. "You'll have 10 to 12 minutes before your body starts to really shut down, so if it happens, just don't panic," he said, "The body's natural response is to take a quick deep gasp, just make sure you're taking that before your head goes under," he said, adding that people should have ice picks with them (to help pull themselves out, "but otherwise, prop yourself up with your elbows to pull yourself out, and then don't stand up to walk right away ... roll. And keep rolling until you're several feet away from the hole."
Clothing can also be a game-changer, as Vinton says regular sweatpants or jeans will be allow the cold water to instantly get to the body, while good quality cold weather gear will keep it out much longer, giving a person more response time both in and out of the water.
As of Monday afternoon, Sieling says the sheriff's department hadn't gotten any calls of people falling through, but he does remind pet owners to be careful as well. He says dogs will sometimes wonder onto lakes only to fall through a weak spot, and while loving owners may be inclined to go and help them, he says calling for help is the best thing to do.
"The fire department has equipment for things like that so that we don't have a person also falling through while trying to save the animal," said Sieling.
But a bit of good news this year -- Vinton says unlike last year, the ice forming seems to be fairly good, strong ice. There have been few thaws and re-freezes (which weakens ice) and not a lot of insulating snow that can often times be an ice-killer.
"So I think this year generally speaking we have a pretty good base," said Vinton.
For more information on area lakes, call the DNR at 218-847-1550.