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Dokken: In the rush to be first, don't take chances on early ice

Early ice conditions can be especially dicey during freeze-ups like this year, when brief cold snaps are followed by warm-ups, and calm days are followed by wind, which of course can wreak havoc on early ice. This time of year, ice can be here one day and gone tomorrow.

DNR ice safety card.jpg
Contributed / Minnesota DNR

GRAND FORKS -- It happens every year about this time, the mad rush to be first on the ice and trumpet the news on YouTube and other social media platforms.

Never mind the fact that the ice might be only 2 inches thick; it’s being first that matters.

I worry, sometimes, whether the rush to be first doesn’t lull others who see the social media posts into a false sense of security that thin ice is actually safe and cause otherwise-sensible people to take chances they otherwise wouldn’t.

Like a fishing guide/freelance writer friend once replied when asked whether the ice was thick enough for walking just days after freeze-up: “That depends on how tall you are.”

In other words, if you’re taller than the water is deep, you might be OK.


If not, the implied message was this: Stay the heck off.

Even that’s no guarantee because a plunge into cold water will result in hypothermia within minutes.


Early ice conditions can be especially dicey during freeze-ups like this year, when brief cold snaps are followed by warm-ups, and calm days are followed by wind, which of course can wreak havoc on early ice. This time of year, ice can be here one day and gone tomorrow – especially on larger or deeper lakes, and rivers or other current areas.
Personally, I prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to early ice, though it hasn’t always been so. With age comes wisdom, the thinking goes, and so it goes with me and early ice.

I’ve been lucky enough to avoid falling through the ice, even on the occasions when I probably should have stayed on shore, and I prefer to keep it that way.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the North Dakota Game and Fish Department both issued advisories this week reminding people to be aware of changing and often unstable ice conditions.

In its warning, the DNR said ice thickness this time of year is “highly variable and subject to the whims of Mother Nature.” It’s vital, the DNR said, that parents talk with their kids about staying safe and resisting the natural temptation to venture out on ice that might not be safe.


The consequences can be deadly.

“There’s nothing worse than when a time of year that should be festive turns tragic,” Lt. Adam Block, boating law administrator for the DNR Enforcement Division, said in a news release. “Teaching your kids to be vigilant around the water this time of year – and doing the same yourself – isn’t just a good idea. It’s an absolute necessity.”

Meanwhile, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department offers these reminders:

  • Edges firm up faster than farther out from shore.

  • Snow insulates ice, which in turn inhibits solid ice formation, hiding cracks, weak and open water areas.

  • Ice can form overnight, causing unstable conditions. Ice thickness is not consistent, as it can vary significantly within a few inches.

  • Avoid cracks, pressure ridges, slushy or darker areas that signal thinner ice. The same goes for ice that forms around partially submerged trees, brush, embankments or other structures.

  • Anglers should drill test holes as they make their way out on the lake, and an ice chisel should be used to check ice thickness while moving around.

  • Daily temperature changes cause ice to expand and contract, affecting its strength.

  • The following minimums are recommended for travel on clear-blue lake ice formed under ideal conditions. However, early in the winter it’s a good idea to double these figures to be safe: 4 inches for a group walking single file, 6 inches for a snowmobile or ATV, 8 to 12 inches for an automobile and 12 to 15 inches for a pickup or truck.

Having a plan in case something goes wrong also is crucial, and the DNR offers these safety tips:

  • Always wear a life jacket or float coat on the ice (except when in a vehicle).

  • Carry ice picks, rope, an ice chisel and tape measure.

  • Check ice thickness at regular intervals; conditions can change quickly.

  • Bring a cell phone or personal locator beacon.

  • Don’t go out alone; let someone know about trip plans and expected return time.

  • Before heading out, inquire about conditions and known hazards with local experts.

There’ll be several months to stare at a bobber or my electronics through a hole in the ice. I’m content to let the daredevils go first and share their triumphs – or mishaps – with the world on YouTube, Instagram or whatever other social media platform suits their fancy.
“Let Evel Knievel get on the plane,” the late great comedian George Carlin once said. “I’ll get in the plane.”

So it is with me and first ice; I’m content to take the less adventurous approach.

Brad Dokken column sig.jpg
Brad Dokken

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