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Winter won't loosen grip on lake ice

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Flash back one year, to April 2012.

The ice had officially been off Detroit Lake since March 23 — one of the earliest “ice out” dates on record — and local residents already had their docks out and boats on the water.

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This year, however, the ice on Big Detroit is still a couple of feet thick in most places, and it appears Old Man Winter won’t be giving up his grip on the region anytime soon.

As Gary Thompson of Tri-State Diving put it, “We could be ice fishing the opener this year.”

Unfortunately, that’s not as remote a possibility as it might seem on the surface.

Thompson, who just completed a dive beneath the ice on nearby Pickerel Lake this past weekend, said that the ice there was still nearly three feet thick — 33 inches, to be precise.

What’s even more telling, though, is that there were not any of the usual signs that the ice was breaking up.

“There was no honeycombing,” he said. “The ice appeared solid all the way down.”

That’s fairly unusual for this time of year, Thompson added. Usually when he does ice dives this late in the season, there are multiple signs of honeycombing, and it’s clearly unsafe to take vehicles out on the ice.

“It’s going to be a while before the ice goes out,” he said. “A couple of weeks at least.”

And that’s a conservative estimate. Dick Hecock of the Pelican River Watershed District, who has been maintaining Detroit Lake’s official “ice in” and “ice out” records for about 30 years now, said that until the snow cover clears from the lake, melting will be a slow process.

“We’ve had 67½ inches of snow thus far,” he said. “That’s about two feet above average (as measured from 1980-2010).

“Last year we had 16½ inches,” he added, and that was for the entire winter. This year, the possibility of snow still lingers.

When there is still snow cover on a lake, the sun reflects off the surface, away from the ice, and the melting process is slowed considerably.

“Ice out is, to a large degree, a function of sun angle,” Hecock said, “whereas ice in (the date when the lake freezes over in the fall) is a function of low temperatures at night.”

Typically, there is only about a week’s variation either way in the average “ice out” date, Hecock said, which for Detroit Lake falls on April 20.

Last year was an exception — and this year might be as well, but on the other side of the spectrum.

“I don’t like to speculate,” Hecock said. “That’s for the folks at the Main Street (where the morning ‘coffee club’ has run an ice out contest for several years now).”

But all indications are that ice out for Detroit Lake is still at least a couple of weeks away — and that’s only if Mother Nature cooperates and starts clearing the snow cover.

“Once that (snow cover) clears, it should go pretty fast,” Hecock said.

Despite appearances, this winter has not been an unusually harsh one as far as temperatures go.

“Except for March, this hasn’t been a real cold winter,” Hecock said. “But this March was about 10 degrees below average — the coldest in more than 20 years.”

Though only a little over a week in, April is shaping up to be similarly chilly, he added, and below average temperatures coupled with lack of sunshine and high winds is making the possibility of ice clearing off area lakes seem increasingly remote.

While Thompson sees this “slow melt” as a good thing with regard to the possibility of spring floods on the Red River and its tributaries, Hecock isn’t so sure.

“Unless we get a lot of rain, the ground is so dry that it’s soaking up the melting snow pretty good,” Thompson said. “We’ve got a lot of places to put the water before it even hits the river.”

But Hecock said that if the melt extends too late into the spring, the possibility exists that water from melting snow could combine with a heavy spring rain to create a disastrous situation.

The reason is that while water levels in area lakes were at record lows last fall, when the ground froze, precipitation this winter has been unusually high.

“In January, February and March, we had 5.6 inches of precipitation,” he said. “That’s about two times the average for those months. This has been a wet period.”

Still, Hecock said, while the water level in area lakes should be up noticeably once ice out occurs, it should still be below average — unless precipitation continues at similarly high rates this spring.

“The lakes should see a decent rise as soon as the ice comes out… (but) the water level on area lakes last fall was as low as it’s been in 30 years,” Hecock said.

Hopefully, that will translate into fewer flooding incidents this spring, and a welcome break for sandbagging crews in the Fargo-Moorhead area and beyond.

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

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Vicki Gerdes
Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers and editor of MN Boomers magazine for the past 13 years. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.
(218) 847-3151
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