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On thin ice: local anglers test ice, test fate

A pair of anglers ventured out onto the thin ice of Deadshot Bay Monday evening to try their hand at catching a big walleye. They reported the ice to be only an inch and a half thick.

Anglers have been walking on thin ice with local law enforcement recently, as they've prematurely been taking to the semi-frozen lakes.

"There's no law against being foolish," said Becker County Sheriff Tim Gordon, "but the thing is, when they go through it's our responsibility to retrieve them ... dead or alive."

Anglers are already on some of the smaller area lakes where ice is reportedly as thin as an inch and a half, and footprints are being spotted on Big and Little Detroit where it's even thinner.

DNR Fisheries Supervisor Jim Wolters says most lakes have not reached the point of being safe yet -- not even close.

"We were getting there before the warm up last week, but since then it's deteriorated significantly, with some lakes even opening back up again," said Wolters, who says lakes should have at least four inches of good ice to walk on them.

The DNR recommends five inches for snowmobiles or ATV's, 8-12 inches for cars or small pickups and 12-15 inches for medium sized trucks.

"And that's good ice," said Wolters, who says this year's freezing conditions are not producing ideal, strong ice.

"If the lake freezes then opens back up, and the wind piles it up on a shoreline and it re-freezes, each of those edges and those configurations can all be weak spots and are prone to cracking," said Wolters, "it's uneven and rough looking, but it's not strong."

Gordon says a sunny November is also working against the side of safety, as the sun's rays continue to penetrate the already thin ice, warming the ground below, which then also allows for more bacteria.

"And bacteria causes pockets of thin ice because it releases more oxygen, which dissolves the carbon dioxide and produces heat -- warming that spot in the lake by as much as six to eight degrees," Gordon said.

High water will also be a problem again this year, according to Wolters, who says excess river run off empties into lakes, causing them to maintain a higher underwater current, which then erodes the ice from the bottom side.

"And so there will be places where it's basically just sheet ice, but if it snows, white is white and nobody can tell that it's thin by looking at it," said Gordon, who said last year this proved to be the biggest problem for snowmobilers and ATV drivers who went through Lake Sallie and other area lakes.

Spring-fed lakes are common in this area, which Wolters says also poses danger.

"Springs can keep the ice thinner in those areas just because the ground water is warmer than the water in the lake," said Wolters, "The water may freeze over those areas, but still be thinner there, and so it's unpredictable."

Gordon says clear, blue, smooth ice is strongest, while opaque or black ice is weakened.

Big Detroit and Little Detroit are currently some good examples of dangerous ice.

"You'll see how the bacteria around the cattails keeps the water open," explained Gordon, "You'll see how the river is keeping the water open way out there, and you'll see white ice turn to black ice, which means it's absorbed the sunlight and has crystallized -- it's dangerous."

Because each lake is so different, they will all have variable ice thickness and quality.

"You have to use a lot of caution and a lot of knowledgeable people like bait store owners, guides, or resorts," said Wolters, "people who are out there day to day who can tell you how thick the ice is and the good travel routes."

Wolters also says it's a good idea to carry an ice pick in case the ice does break, as it can be used for leverage in getting back out.

He says quick action is usually required in this instance because icy waters cause almost instant shock.

"You don't need to be in very deep water to drown," said Wolters, "If you go down and the shock is such that you gasp, you'll take in water, and that's usually what happens with winter drownings."

Gordon says pretty much every year local firefighters and the Becker County Dive Rescue Team are forced to risk their lives for people who go through the ice.

"You're asking volunteers to leave their jobs and to risk their lives," said Gordon, "and there is also a huge expense with the specialized equipment, the tremendous amount of energy and resources that are expended for these rescues is astronomical."

Gordon says pet owners should also be vigilant with their animals, because emergency responders will take the same risks for pets that go through the ice.

He says that's not necessarily for the animal's sake, but to keep pet owners from taking matters into their own hands.

"A lot of people think of their pets like a member of the family, and so if their adrenaline is pumping, they might go out there without the proper equipment and without the proper knowledge," said Gordon, "so we respond just to protect those people from themselves."

Gordon says local firefighters are usually the ones on the scene first, but their equipment will usually only allow them to do shallow water rescues.

For those who go under in a deep section of the lake, response will likely be much slower.

"The dive team is usually about 20 minutes behind the firefighters because of everything involved -- harnesses, equipment ... it takes about 10 minutes just to get a diver properly into their suits," said Gordon, who adds that equipment failure is only one thing that puts divers and emergency responders in danger.

"I've heard people say, 'I've been walking on this ice for 30 years', and that's fine, but is that pan fish really worth a volunteer firefighter or EMS or a diver's life?"

For more information and tips on staying safe on the ice, log onto the DNR's website at