Ice watch begins as Winter Games approach
Some of us will enjoy the current workweek's relatively balmy three-day forecast with highs in the upper 30s.
There's a completely different segment of the population looking forward to below-zero lows over the upcoming weekend as well.
They won't be hard to spot in many cases -- bit by bit, a village of ice shacks is going up near Smith's Bay on West Lake Okoboji. Other fans of cold weather will be signing up for broomball and softball on the ice as part of the 33rd Annual University of Okoboji Winter Games.
In good years, Winter Games spectators and participants drive right onto the ice of West Lake Okoboji. Food and drink vendors can set up shop over the frozen surface to keep the crowds fed and hydrated.
In bad years, a lack of ice thickness causes some Winter Games events to be relocated or called off altogether.
DNR officials work with Winter Games organizers on the ice safety decision, and they haven't passed a verdict for 2013 just yet.
"We do talk to a lot of folks," said Mike Hawkins, a Spirit Lake District fisheries management biologist. His agency provides guidelines - not recommendations - for adventurers seeking access on frozen lake surfaces.
"When people look at ice thickness, they have to do a couple of things," Hawkins said. "One is to measure thickness and lot of people - unless they're ice fishing - don't have the tools along with them to really measure that ice thickness from a safety standpoint."
The DNR tells folks to stay off ice that is 2 inches thick or less. Officials say at least 4 inches are desired for foot traffic. Snowmobiles or ATVs need at least 5 inches. Cars and small trucks need 8-12 inches of ice. Larger trucks ideally need 12-15 inches.
"If you look at an average season, I'd would guess we're behind," Hawkins said. "We haven't made as much ice as we typically would in northwest Iowa. We had a very late ice-up."
In general, Hawkins and DNR Conservation Officer Jeff Morrison are observing between 8 and 12 inches of ice on the Iowa Great Lakes. "Some locations more, some locations a little less," Hawkins said.
"The ice is definitely improving," Morrison said. "The fact that we had that little bit of rain that took the snow off the ice - then it went down into the deep freeze - was a good thing for ice conditions. It's getting thicker all the time."
Folks who venture out onto the ice have to consider the quality of ice as well, according to the DNR officials.
"Good, clear ice or ice that you can see right through once you take the snow off the top is probably the strongest ice," Hawkins said. "The weakest ice is late season - people say it 'honeycombs.' It honeycombs because water gets down through it and infiltrates it."
Hawkins encourages ice enthusiasts to watch for seams or heaves in the frozen surface as well.
"It's different than a crack - you'll see a lot of cracks in ice," he said. "But a heave is an area where two ice plates or sections of ice have come together. You'll see a noticeable hump in the ice. On either side of that heave, ice conditions can be very treacherous. A majority of vehicles and people getting themselves into trouble during this time of the season are near those heaves."
The DNR says ice thickness can vary, even in areas a few hundred feet apart.
"Just because we have 12 and maybe even up to 15 inches in some locations, people still need to be cautious and checking their paths and making sure," Hawkins said. "If you are going to be driving a vehicle out, boy, you really want to make sure that the ice ahead is safe and thick enough to hold up that vehicle."
As of Monday, Jan. 14, Morrison felt it was "a little bit early" to drive full-sized vehicles out onto the ice.
"But," he adds. "There are a lot of people who are doing that."