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What lies beneath? Officials urge caution as large snowfall can act as insulator to lakes making ice

Ice fishermen brave the brisk weather on Lake Irving on Thursday afternoon. With the recent heavy snowfall, officials are urging caution as the new snow can act as an insulator and make it difficult for lakes to make new ice. (Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- Beware of thin ice.

More than a foot of snow blanketed the region this week, and all that new snow acts as an insulator atop lake ice, making it treacherous out there for ice fishermen and others.

"The wisest thing for people right now is to stay off the ice with their vehicles and make darn sure they know what they're doing, that they're equipped and prepared for (falling through) if they do go out on the ice," Phil Hodapp, Beltrami County Sheriff, said Thursday. "You can't count on anybody to see you go through or rely on a rescue crew to come save you in time; you have to be prepared to save yourself."

This week's warnings go beyond the usual ice warnings of early winter because, with the large snowfall, the landscape may look the same but the ice underneath is far from consistent.

Gary Barnard, the Department of Natural Resources area fisheries supervisor based in Bemidji, said that on larger lakes, like Bemidji, the shoreline might have developed 5 to 6 inches of ice by late last week but the central part of the lake was barely frozen over.

But covered in snow, the entire lake looks evenly covered.

"Lake Bemidji is tough; that's a deep lake and it takes a long time for the whole lake to cool enough to freeze over," he said, noting that early last week the center of the lake was still open.

The new cold snap -- the warmest temperatures before Sunday are in the single-digits -- will allow the lakes a chance to harden up some, but the snow is going to make things difficult, Barnard said.

So much snow weighs down on the ice, causing the water underneath to come up through cracks to flood the ice surface, thus creating slush.

That slush will freeze, Barnard said, but it will take some time.

Looks can be deceiving

In the meantime, the ice is not as safe as it usually it is at this time of year, yet because of all the snow cover, it looks safer than it really is.

That is what has emergency crews worried.

"We really urge people to be cautious," Hodapp said, "to be very familiar with where they are going and take precautions."

He advised anyone venturing out on lakes to along ice picks just in case they break through the ice and need to pull themselves out.

On large lakes such as Lake Bemidji, the ice is not thick enough for any kind of vehicle, Hodapp stressed.

On smaller lakes, he said, ice-fishermen are advised to be extremely cautious, even though the ice may be thicker.

"As far as operating any vehicle, right now we don't recommend any cars or trucks and I would hesitate to recommend even an ATV or snowmobile on most of our lakes," he said. "We don't want to have anybody get injured or lose their lives out there."

Further complicating matters is that a potential rescue is going to be more difficult with all the recent snowfall.

When someone goes through ice, Bemidji firefighters usually respond with their hovercraft. But while the vessel will be ready and available if someone needs help, its response is going to be hindered by the snow.

"It's going to be more challenging," said Bemidji Fire Chief Dave Hoefer.

The hovercraft is designed to float on top of a surface, with the aid of a fan that pushes the vehicle forward. It works best on ice, a smooth surface. But too much new snow creates drifts and unevenness and the machine can't maneuver as well as it should.

Additionally, because of the fan, all that loose, new snow swirls around, creating a snow fog for the rescuers.

"We can't use it as efficiently as we would like" in these conditions, Hoefer said of the hovercraft. "Visibility becomes a challenge and mobility becomes a real big challenge for us."

Colder temps help

Farther north, conditions appear to be more favorable on Lake of the Woods, where resorts were reopening trails on the ice that drifted shut during the most recent storm, which dumped nearly a foot of snow on the region.

Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism, said he talked to several resort owners Thursday afternoon and plans were on track to set up rental houses on the ice as soon as the trails were cleared.

The lake has 8 to 9 inches of ice, Henry said, that now is covered by 6 to 9 inches of snow. The hope, though, is that the wind will clear the worst of the snow from the vast, ice-covered expanse. Regardless, resorts with reservations on the books for this weekend will be ready to roll, Henry said.

"The snow caused a mess in a sense because they've got to plow the roads open," Henry said. "So far, it looks fine and will not impede resorts from pulling houses out at all."

Traffic on the ice remains limited to snowmobiles, ATVs and light vehicles such as Geo Trackers, which the resorts use to transport customers onto the ice in heated trailers. Temperatures are forecast to dip into the 20 below range this weekend, which should help thicken the ice even with the snow, Henry said.

Brad Dokken with Forum News Service contributed to this report.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recommends the following ice thicknesses:

- 4 inches for walking.

- 5 inches for a snowmobile or ATV.

- 8-12 inches for a car.

- 12-15 inches for a medium-sized truck.