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Fish houses starting to sprout up on area lakes

With the cold snap, area lakes have been making ice like crazy -- bait shop owners report 3-5 inches on most lakes, and fish houses are sprouting up.

But Little Detroit Lake just iced-over last Saturday, and Becker County Sheriff Tim Gordon is advising no motorized travel on lakes this weekend.

"We're looking at a good 4 inches (of ice on Little Detroit Lake) and growing," he said Thursday. "But we're advising, for the next week or so, no vehicles -- walking only. No snowmobiles or ATVs yet."

As usual, a few people "pushed the envelope" last weekend and were on the ice shortly after it formed, Gordon said.

"On Friday we had a dog go through the thin ice on Munson Lake, and the next day -- the next day! -- I saw people walking on the ice on Little Detroit, and it hadn't gone below zero yet."

On the plus side, the lack of heavy snow combined with cold temperatures has created "good, clear ice, which is strong ice," Gordon said.

"The biggest caution this year with the extreme cold will be the ice heaves," he added. "You get fissures cracking and they can leave open water several feet across."

Here's some information from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on safely traveling on lake ice:

Checking ice thickness

No matter what you are going to do once you get on the ice -- like fishing, snowmobiling, skating or even ice boating, it's a good idea to contact a local bait shop or resort on the lake about ice conditions.

It's also important to do some checking yourself once you get there. Several factors affect the relative safety of ice, such as temperature, snow cover and currents. But a very important factor is the actual ice thickness.

Use an ice chisel, ice auger or cordless drill and long five-eighth inch wood auger bit to drill through the ice.

Some people claim they can judge thickness by where the chisel or drill suddenly breaks through, but that happens so quickly, it's easy to overestimate the thickness.

It's smarter to use a tape measure or something like an ice fisherman's ice skimmer handle with inch markings to put down the hole and hook the bottom edge of the hole to determine the ice's true thickness.

Other things to keep in mind when checking ice

Ice is seldom the same thickness over a single body of water. It can be two feet thick in one place and one inch thick a few yards away due to currents, springs, rotting vegetation or school of rough fish. You need to check the ice at least every 150 feet, especially early in the season or any situation where the thickness varies widely.

Vehicles weighing about one ton such as cars, pickups or SUVs should be parked at least 50 feet apart and moved every two hours to prevent sinking.

It's not a bad idea to make a hole next to the car. If water starts to overflow the top of the hole, the ice is sinking and it's time to move the vehicle!

Recommended minimum thicknesses for new ice

Here are the recommended minimum thicknesses for new clear ice.

-- 4 inches for ice fishing and small group activities.

-- 5 inches for snowmobiles and ATVs.

-- 8 to 10 inches for small to medium cars, and pickups.

White ice, sometimes called "snow ice," is only about half as strong as new clear ice, so the above thicknesses should be doubled.

Traveling on ice

The following guidelines can help you make wise choices...

-- Check for known thin ice areas with a local resort or bait shop.

-- Test the thickness yourself using an ice chisel, ice auger or even a cordless quarter-inch drill with a long bit.

-- Refrain from driving on ice whenever possible.

If you must drive a vehicle, be prepared to leave it in a hurry -- keep windows down, unbuckle your seat belt and have a simple emergency plan of action you have discussed with your passengers.

-- Stay away from alcoholic beverages.

Even "just a couple of beers" are enough to cause a careless error in judgment that could cost you your life. And contrary to common belief, alcohol actually makes you colder rather than warming you up.

-- Don't "overdrive" your snowmobile's headlight.

At even 30 miles per hour, it can take a much longer distance to stop on ice than your headlight shines. Many fatal snowmobile through-the-ice accidents occur because the machine was traveling too fast for the operator to stop when the headlamp illuminated the hole in the ice.

-- Wear a life vest under your winter gear. Or wear one of the new flotation snowmobile suits. And it's a good idea to carry a pair of ice picks that may be home made or purchased from most well stocked sporting goods stores that cater to winter anglers.