Color It White

The mild days early this month are creating uncertainty about ice conditions. In my recent travels around the area I’ve seen signs of ice regressing on the larger lakes. Here on Birch things are not trending in a good direction for those who look forward to fishing, skating, snowmobiling and other pursuits. The lake finally froze all the way across on November 30 as a cold and still night left a skin of ice on the remaining and rather extensive open patches.

I walked on the lake near shore to give the ice a tentative assessment. It was sound in that area; only once in a stroll up and down our shoreline did I find a creaky spot. Because the last open water had frozen over so recently, I wasn’t prepared to venture farther out. Then an inch or two of snow fell atop the ice, the virginal lakescape a beautiful sight to see on rising in the morning, but an impediment to evaluating the ice conditions. The snow obscured the visual clues that help in deciding how safe the ice is. Chiefly, those clues are stress cracks, which reliably show the ice thickness, and transitions from cloudy ice near shore (generally sound) to clearer “black ice” farther out (not to be trusted this early in the season).

The mild start to December (highs in the low 30s) was not conducive to thickening the ice sheet. And then came two straight days with highs in the low to mid-40s. By late afternoon on the first of those days, the lake’s white blanket showed dark, shadowy areas corresponding to those late-to-freeze spots. A couple of those looked uncomfortably close to the places where I like to fish. Generally, once the lake freezes, it takes a lot of warm weather to open it up again. Since this time it took only a couple of unusually warm days, I assume the last patches that iced over never had much of a chance to solidify. So for now I don’t plan to use the body-weight method of assessing safety.

I’m also wary of the ice drill method, boring holes progressively farther from shore, a few feet in between, and measuring the thickness with the handle of a slush skimmer. With the snow cover, it would be nearly impossible to guess where sound ice ends and hazardous ice begins. Colder weather is expected for the coming weekend and well into next week. Research shows that early ice thickens at a rate dependent on freezing degree-days – measured as the amount by which a day’s average stays below the freezing point of 32 degrees F. As an example, a day with an average temperature of 17 degrees would amount to 15 freezing degree-days – roughly what it takes to thicken early ice by about one inch.

A week of cold weather, highs in the 20s, overnight lows in the teens, would do a lot of work toward creating safe ice. I’m waiting for that to happen before giving conducting a test. When I do I’ll be wearing a flotation vest and carrying ice claws. And, I hope, going out with a buddy.