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The hunt for perfect ice

With little snow so far this winter, the potential for great skating is here

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 12/1/21

In another largely snowless first few weeks of winter, the search for good ice is underway. It’s always a race against time, as we know that the lake skating season will be over with our first …

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The hunt for perfect ice

With little snow so far this winter, the potential for great skating is here


In another largely snowless first few weeks of winter, the search for good ice is underway. It’s always a race against time, as we know that the lake skating season will be over with our first real snowfall.
My usual skating haunts have been decent, in some cases better than decent, although the conditions change by the day as the ice expands, creating cracks that seep water that freezes unevenly. Lost Lake has been pretty good, despite some rough patches. Vermilion’s Pike Bay has actually been the best skating so far, with a largely smooth surface of black ice that’s a pretty consistent 6-8 inches thick. When the wind blows the occasional dusting of snow off the surface, it’s a pretty compelling sheet of ice. With Nordic skates, which clip to my ski boots, it can seem like flying.
Yet, for me, when it comes to ice, the quest for the perfect sheet is part of the adventure, and it’s that quest that had a friend and me holding our breath more than once as we slowly skated our way up the Moose River this past weekend.
For those not familiar, the Moose River North access is located well up the Echo Trail, about halfway between Ely and Buyck. Our original plan was a skate up the Moose River to Nina Moose Lake, followed by a circle tour up the Nina Moose River and over to Ramshead and Lamb lakes. I’d canoed the route in day trips before, so I figured it would be a few hours’ jaunt on skates.
We knew there would be opportunities to find thin ice along the way, so we carried dry clothes in sealed packs, wore life vests, and had our spikes looped around our necks just in case we needed to claw our way out of a hole. After falling through on Burntside Lake last year, I had a better sense of what was involved and what kind of gear could ease the process of drying out and warming up after a fall through the ice.
I also knew I preferred to avoid a repeat of the experience, just not enough to stay home. The wild ice was calling, after all, and no one else was going to check out the skating up in our part of the Boundary Waters. In fact, we were the first people to stop at the access point in some time, as there were no vehicle tracks in the couple inches of snow that had been on the ground since that mid-November storm that brought rain and snow to the area. We walked the 160-rod portage down to the river, which arrived just below a rapids with plenty of flowing water. I had expected that, and fortunately, there was skateable ice just below. A few nights of temperatures near zero earlier that week had left anywhere from 2-4 inches of black ice behind. It’s such conditions that create uncertainty. Four inches is plenty safe for skating, and two inches is supposed to be sort-of safe. I think of it as marginal, “hold-your-breath-and-don’t-slow-down” kind of ice. We had a fair amount of that kind of ice as we made our way down the Moose River, which made it all a bit exhilarating. It was the abundance of beaver along the river that slowed us down. Every dam created open water and had to be negotiated carefully, and we both ended up with a wet foot, but nothing worse, as we made our way around several dams.
I had figured the skate up the Moose River would take less than an hour, but by the time we reached Nina Moose Lake, it had taken us just over an hour and a half. We had gotten a late start as it was, so it was already shortly after noon when we arrived. Recalculating the math on the rest of the planned trip, it was apparent the loop route would have had us back well after dark, which would have further complicated our return trip on the Moose River.
So, we rolled with the punches and explored a bit on Nina Moose Lake. We considered taking the portage to Lamb Lake, but at 228 rods, it was a long walk in ski boots. And we had no idea if the ice would be any better there than on Nina Moose.
There was plenty of ice on Nina Moose, but the skating wasn’t worth the effort to get there. A fair amount of snow, combined with lots of rough ice around expansion cracks, made it passable, but hardly the flat sheet of black ice I had hoped for. Not that I minded taking time to explore Nina Moose a bit. It’s usually a thru-route for canoeists, myself included, so it’s typically been a straight shot to the north end to continue up the Nina Moose River, or a quick jaunt to the west to pick up the portage to Lamb.
With some time to explore, we skated over to the big rock bluff on the lake’s western shore. I’ve always taken note of the progress of the returning forest along that east-facing slope, which burned in the 1970s and has come back heavily to pine. It’s interesting country and I once followed a young bull moose through those woods for a while after I spotted it from the Lamb Lake portage. It didn’t seem to notice me, or care, and it was fascinating to watch it amble through the relatively open forest there.
After an hour poking around on the lake, we set our sights on the return. As I had hoped, skating back on the river took about half the time as we mostly followed our tracks, figuring if the ice held us the first time, we’d be okay on the second. We still had to pick our way around the beaver dams, but we skated the rest of way with a lot more confidence and without having to stop routinely to check the ice.
In the end, it wasn’t the trip I had hoped, but you don’t know until you get out and explore. If the snow continues to hold off, I’ll likely to back out this weekend, in search of the perfect ice.


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