When conditions align, skaters seek out 'wild ice' on northern Minnesota lakes

An aerial view of people skating on a frozen lake
A group of skaters glides over Deer Yard Lake on Thursday near Lutsen, Minn. Early season ice on lakes in northern Minnesota along with little snowfall have created great skating conditions.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

While ice conditions remain unsafe across much of the state, in northern Minnesota, cold temperatures have combined with a lack of snow to create ideal conditions for the formation of what some call ‘wild ice’ — black, glassy, smooth ice that can make for miles of epic ice skating on some remote lakes.

The activity can be dangerous, and requires skill, preparation and common sense, but when the conditions align to allow for lake skating, a die-hard group of skaters in northeastern Minnesota drop everything in search of perfect ice, and the feeling of gliding across the mirror-like surface.

“I think it is just being able to go so fast, so easily. And put on so much distance with just a couple of things strapped to your feet,” said Ian Andrus, who clocked himself skating 22 miles per hour in the past week.

People skates on a frozen lake
Ian Andrus (left) and Kjersti Vick (right) skate on Deer Yard Lake.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Andrus, an organic farmer who lives along the ridge between Lutsen and Grand Marais, created a Facebook group a few years ago for skaters to share information on ice conditions that has since grown to more than 500 members.

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The allure of skating across wilderness lakes is bolstered by the ephemeral nature of the season, he and others say.

Some years, ideal skating conditions can linger for weeks. Other times, they may never appear.

“It’s so fleeting and rare,” Andrus said. “You have to just kind of get it while it’s there.” And then when the snow flies, “then it’s gone, you know, in one night.”

When the ice is good, “I set aside everything just to go out and do it,” said John Oberholtzer, a realtor who lives down the road from Andrus.

“There’s a group up here that are minded that way,” he said. “Sometimes, you’ve got to play hooky!”

Safety First

On Thursday morning, Oberholtzer and Andrus were joined by Kjersti Vick, another avid skater, for an outing on Deer Yard Lake, a shallow, mile-and-a-half long lake surrounded by pine trees outside Lutsen.

They all strapped pairs of long Nordic blades to their boots, specially designed for cross-country skating.

But before they ventured out on the ice, Oberholtzer first chopped a hole to measure its thickness.

After several whacks, he finally broke through to water. He pulled off his glove and submerged his hand in the hole.

“It’s really thick now,” he said.

A person swings an ax on a frozen lake
John Oberholtzer uses an axe to check the ice thickness before heading out to skate.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

He estimated the ice was nearly 8 inches thick. That’s plenty to skate on. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources advises at least 4 inches. Still, early in the season, Oberholtzer said he checks the ice all the time.

“I literally am constantly checking. And then, once I know if a big expanse is good, I’ll set my ax down and goof around in there. But otherwise, I’m always checking,” he said.

Andrus carries a chisel with him to test the ice. Vick, who works for Visit Cook County, uses a power drill with a 4-inch-long bit. If it doesn’t break through, she knows the ice is at least 4 inches.

She tries to impress on visitors that there is inherent risk involved to skating on lakes. She always tests the thickness of the ice, even if others are skating on it.

“I usually wear a life jacket. I have my ice picks, I have a throw rope. And I usually have a backpack with me or at least nearby that has a dry bag in it in case something happens and I or somebody else needs some dry clothing.”

A macro image of frozen ice on a lake
Dark ice on Deer Yard Lake made for great skating conditions.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Having dry clothing was critical for Oberholtzer a few years ago when he broke through the ice on Brule Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

“It was like 10 degrees out, I had to change all my clothes. And I realized by the end of it, I was pretty sapped. And that was a big lesson. I was by myself. I was fine. It worked out. But since that time, I just don't push it anymore,” he said.

Still, Oberholtzer, who learned to skate at outdoor rinks in suburban Chicago, admits that danger is also part of the allure.

“A lot of people think it’s kind of crazy. And, you know, I don’t want to do things that are foolhardy, that’s dangerous. But it is like ‘Make Your Own Adventure.’ And you’ve got to be super mindful of yourself, and make it happen. You’re not being guided on this thing. And I think it’s kind of fun to be doing something that other people think is completely dangerous.”

A silhouette of a person skating on a lake
Kjersti Vick skates on Deer Yard Lake.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Singing Ice

Even when the ice is safe, it moves and shifts, and often makes noises that are sometimes frightening, sometimes beautiful.

“I really love to listen to the ice, because it sings while it’s forming,” said Vick. “And I think that it both, you know, makes your heart race a little bit because sometimes you’ll have a big boom right underneath you. But it also is just really exciting. And it’s magical to listen to.”

It can sound like an echo, or a deep vibration. It’s difficult to describe.

“I don't know, maybe whales?” suggested Andrus.

“It’s like some sort of deep, old water language,” said Oberholtzer, laughing.

Part of the appeal is also being able to see what’s beneath the ice.

An aerial view of people skating on a frozen lake
The shadow of Kjersti Vick is cast on the frozen surface of Deer Yard Lake.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

“You’ll see some fish, you'll see the aquatic vegetation, submerged logs,” said Oberholtzer. “And you can skate super fast over that sometimes. That's almost disconcerting, like you’re elevated, flying over it.”

For these skaters, part of the adventure is the hunt for ‘wild ice,’ on lakes across the Arrowhead, and the sense of satisfaction when they find a glassy surface to glide across.

The best days, they agree, are when they can skate from lake to lake across the Boundary Waters, taking off their blades to hike across portage trails.

As they skated back to the shore of Deer Yard Lake, they were already scheming about their next outing. They plan to find as much ‘wild ice’ as they can before the snow inevitably comes.

“You’re always dreaming of what's your next adventure,” Oberholtzer said.

An aerial view of a frozen lake
Early season ice on lakes in northern Minnesota along with little snowfall have created great skating conditions.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News