Winter of Discontent: Lake Superior Wild Ice Report 2021-22

The Wildest Wild Ice

This winter I operated as a lake observer from my hillside fortress of solitude. I dug my binoculars out and pegged them by the window to study the lake’s changes. Obsessed with the wildest wild ice — skating the big lake — I track everything to do with Lake Superior freezing. I track wind speed, wind direction, temperature, and preciptiation daily. In summer this helps me predict local water temps and clarity related to underwater video. In winter this relates to skateable ice on the biggest lake in the world.

It’s been a long disappointing winter as far as that goes. We know the lake freezes over every few years, less often with climate change. So one champs at the bit yet anticipates failure. What one needs for skateable ice are 1.) low temps, and 2.) little wind, below 10MPH for 3.) a few days. 4.) If there’s wind it has to be from the right direction. And 5.) Snowfall must be tracked because heavy snow can impede skating and stress ice; light snow can melt giving ice a bumpy texture. The lake juggles these five variables. If they line up right, the lake becomes skateable like three years ago when it had 95% ice cover becoming the world’s largest ice rink. And the time a few years before that, and a few years before that.

And all you need is our little corner of the lake to freeze. Duluth is ideally situated because here the North Shore takes a hard left at Canal Park to become Park Point. That corner freezes over and the ice spreads outward. It also receives incoming ice and anchors it. It’s the area on the Lakewalk between Fitger’s and the Lift Bridge, the very ass end of Lake Superior. The harbor side might freeze even if the open lake doesn’t. Some years there’s ice but it’s an unskateable conglomerate because of wind and wave. Some years the city streets are skateable. The wild ice scene is like a box of chocolates.

I studied the permutations as winter tore on into lightless days projecting my mind on the walls as the lake peered in the windows. This has been the first deep winter in decades where the timeless darkness ensconced me. I lit my blue and green and purple rooms with glows like an underwater habitat. I slowed time to a quarter beat by listening to nothing but Mazzy Star and their languid mysteries. “Quiet, the Winter Harbor” played on loop as I spied harbor lights through the binoculars, becoming each character in the song, dedicating it to the lake. I am married to the sea.

The Wild Ice Grapevine

One is not guaranteed an annual Big Lake skate, I constantly reminded myself. But hope is a thing. This winter looked promising several times, but the wind just never let it rest. When it was super cold, it was too windy for ice. And when the wind died down for a minute, it wasn’t quite cold enough.

There was occasional chatter on the grapevine of wild ice enthusiasts. It looked like the ice was setting up pretty good in mid-winter for a second, and Robot Rickshaw messaged me that it seemed promising. I reminded him high winds were imminent. He tracks the weather even closer than I do. He showed me his insane weather app and it had so many parameters I felt it might diffuse me entirely like all this Mazzy Star. Robot Rickshaw lives closer to the lake than I do and is a valuable source of intel as we manage our data points.

Another buddy kept checking in throughout the season: “Any wild ice out there? I got my kids looking. The pond at Hartley is frozen and some volunteers are keeping it shoveled…” I knew through social media that regional lakes were freezing here and there. Last year Island Lake wild ice became a thing. It froze beautifully and snowfall was light enough that it was skateable for weeks.

But there’s nothing like Big Sexy. Lake Superior spoiled me. It’s not even that I’m some big skater – I will chase ice sometimes. But mainly I just watch that lake. If time is an illusion, I can wait. Other skating opportunities come and go. I don’t care.

The big lake ice continued its prevarications. That’s how it went until late February-early March.

My First and Only Skate of the Season

2/28/22, Monday: Heard Robot Rickshaw and Narum were out yesterday, my co-conspirators in the People’s Free Skate. Social media also conveyed a pic, through a telescope, of a skater on the lake. The post passed around like a whisper: people are skating the big lake. Weather showed stable pattern of low wind for 3-4 days. Temps were below freezing but not negative 20 or anything. But if Robot Rickshaw and Narum were out there, that means it’s safe. Well, the correlation is not perfect. But it seemed we had a skateable sheet of ice — a large one! — nestled right up against the city, like they do. I resolved to explore it the next day after work.

I consulted a work friend who is also nutty for big lake wild ice. “I hear people are skating the big lake,” I said.

She replied, “I went this morning. I ran into Robot Rickshaw. He said he talked with anglers out there and they were measuring ice six inches thick. He said ‘Tell Jim.’”

After work I grabbed my skates and went down there. I got on past Leif Erickson Park where the anglers always get on, found the tracks of their sleds, saw them 500 feet out over the deepest water the fish jumping out of their black iceholes into waiting buckets.

It was difficult picking my way onto the ice. The ice sheet was large but vulnerable to shifting about by breezes. There was a two-foot gap of thin crunchy ice between the shore and the ice sheet that had to be gingerly negotiated. I thought of the footage I’d seen lately of former Olympic speed skater Brian Hansen in Milwaukee skating wild ice on Lake Michigan. And he was saying four inch thick ice is considered safe but sometimes he’s less sure of conditions and wears a wetsuit. He even paddleboards to ice islands floating on open water and skates those. Goals. Meanwhile here I was over two or three feet of water acting afraid of it like a cat.

On the Ice

I got on the ice and, skating now, started neurotically assessing its thickness by looking at the depth of frozen bubbles and stress fractures. The ice was clear – for a few yards by the shore the subsurface rocks and boulders were visible like skating on a window. But farther out the rocks and boulders dropped away; the ice grew black as it capped greater depths. The first thing I thought was, “This is not six inches thick.” Although tricky to judge, there were some spans only a couple inches thick. I had skated even thinner ice last year, out of sheer desperation and depression, hoping not to die every second. This year, although depressed as shit, I was not eager to relive that. It’s stressful to constantly scan the ice hoping you don’t fall through a weak spot and why didn’t I buy those icepicks to claw my way out with. That wetsuit is going to become part of my winter repertoire I think.

Farther from shore the ice thickened up to a good four inches, I never found six-inch ice although I realize different thicknesses could be found throughout the sheet. Seemed mostly good but not good enough to try and invite the whole city to a giant ice party. This ice was good enough for individual risk-takers. But two inches is sketch bro.

I got in a good skate. I wended my way past Leif Erikson where the Free Skate had been, down to in front of Fitger’s. I looked for spots to get off but found nowhere safe – the gap of sketch ice ringed the whole sheet. It’s the kind of gap that I would only try if I had to, like if the ice sheet started to blow out to sea. So I skated back to where I’d got on, which was dicey enough, but doable. I had only been on the ice about an hour. I was underdressed and cold and decided to leave. But I’d ranged pretty far. I got my fix. This winter’s utter and total timelessness stretched that hour to an infinity. Since I didn’t know how long this sheet would last, one skate had to be enough until next time.

The gap had widened and wettened in that hour, and leaving the ice was tricky. The wind was low but the sheet was blowing around albeit very slowly. If that gap had opened another foot or two, I would have been trapped like those poor idiots last year who’d blown out to sea. I do not want to need rescuing by the Coast Guard live on the news.

I got home and reviewed the pics I’d taken. My tiger-print scarf clashed with my jacket and made me look like a little old woman instead of a superhero. Oh well. I had skated the big lake. And the lake had reminded me that it didn’t care if I lived or died.

The Gap

The next day at work I talked to an angler friend. She said she’d got on. She had a friend out there reporting ice thicknesses of between 2-4 inches. Two inches — I knew it! She heard someone fell through but was fine. I remembered the thin ice I skated last year, and that widening gap. My angler also said the gap had widened on her by the time she left, and she had to leap across. But she was going back the next day, the lure of the fish was irresistible. “I’ll call you if I need rescuing,” she laughed.

I went down there that afternoon. I was looking for a safe way on the ice from Canal Park, which I was sure I could find but found none. My foot broke through the gap, two feet down through brittle ratchet ice, and my boot filled with ice water. Several skaters were out there, presumably having got on where I had the day before. They seemed to be skating pretty close to the canal but I couldn’t tell for sure. I kept thinking about how if I got on the ice and hyped it up, branding it as a Lake Superior Aquaman joint, someone could get hurt and that person might be me. I walked the Lakewalk extensively with a wet foot looking for a way onto the ice, saw none. People were getting on somewhere beyond Leif Erikson Park — which was doable but there was the widening gap situation. I went home feeling okay about it. I should have been devastated to be denied, but the lake and I have an understanding. Part of that understanding is it’s trying to kill me. “Come skate,” it said. “Pass,” I replied.

Yet I felt glad people were on it. The joy of big lake wild ice is immeasurable, uncontrollable. It was in fact largely safe, if conditionally. I counted a couple dozen people on it from a distance. The next day at work my angler said she’d seen a hundred skaters.

Robot Rickshaw and Narum and other Embassy personnel posted a bunch of stills and footage from the ice sheet. Robot Rickshaw had messaged me with an invitation but I begged off. The weather’s turning now so the consensus is wild ice season is over. Oops, scratch that — I just spied a pop-up ice shack out there…

I’m glad so many people got on. I got on too, and it was good. I missed the weeklong party atmosphere. But I skated wild ice.

An index of Jim Richardson’s essays may be found here.



about 2 years ago

What is the origin and/or when did people start referring to lake ice as “wild ice”? Does the term refer to any ice outside a hockey rink, e.g. naturally formed ice? Growing up, we referred to it as ice. I first heard the term a couple years ago in reference to early season BWCAW ice that folks were skating on. I sort of thought they used the term “wild ice” to refer to the location of the ice in a federally designated “wild”erness. Sort of made sense in that context.

Jim Richardson (aka Lake Superior Aquaman)

about 2 years ago

@LAGER_MAN: I have noticed the term in use the past couple-few years to distinguish ice in nature from rink ice. I use it because it's evocative and illustrative

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