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The Lake Where You Live: Fast freeze-up

November 15, 2019

Has your lake frozen yet? In my travels early this week I noticed that some lakes had iced in, others not (mostly the larger ones).

Birch Lake, where I live, froze clear across on Friday, Nov. 8. This is our sixth winter living full-time on the lake; the earliest previous ice date on our chart was Nov. 21, 2014.

It has been cold, very cold, since late October, and the lake water was hovering right at the edge of freezing, just waiting for the wind to shut down overnight and allow ice to form. On that Friday morning, there it was, a sheet of ice, shoreline to shoreline, where the day before the wind-stirred water had been open except in the shallow area we call Indian Bay.

Going down to the lake I expected to find just a thin pane of ice, but what I saw looked like a fairly substantial sheet. I gave it my usual rock test, taking a rock about as big as my first and hurling it as high and far as my aging arm and shoulder could manage. The rock struck with a solid thwack and slid for a ways across the surface. A second rock brought the same result.

Based on experience with rock test sounds, I estimated the ice must be about an inch thick, maybe more, and that’s a lot of ice to form after just one night. New ice is a majestic sight, the rough waves of chilled water turning to a flat surface lent a silver sheen by a low sun.

When the freeze sets in you see your lake in stop-action, a kind of suspended animation. It’s quieter, too — no more sound of waves lapping the shore and of ice crystals sloshing in the shallows amid the bulrushes. It’s all the more silent because, odds are, no one else is around. It’s too soon for ice fishing and it will be a while before snowmobilers can safely ride.

To my considerable disappointment, snow again immediately followed the freeze, so I’ve been denied my annual wish for clear ice through which to observe the lake bottom, an experience even better than summertime snorkeling.

As I wrote this the 10-day forecast called for continued cold through today (Friday), with daytime highs in the teens or 20s and overnight lows in the teens to single digits. Then we’re due for a warmup — a series of days with highs above freezing. 

So the ice will have some time to thicken, but then there may be some thawing. Alternating cold and warm spells are not good for ice stability, so it’s hard to tell how soon and for how long the ice will be suitable for skating, snowshoeing, and drilling those holes for tip-ups and jig poles. 

It does appear that we’re headed for a long season of ice cover, a concern for those who live on smaller, shallower lakes vulnerable to winter fish kills. Much will depend on what happens at the other end of the season — how soon the ice goes out. In our six years here, the earliest was April 9, 2017.

Ted Rulseh resides on Birch Lake in Harshaw and is an advocate for lake protection and improvement. His Lakeland Times and Northwoods River News columns are the basis for a book, “A Lakeside Companion,” published by The University of Wisconsin Press. Ted may be reached at [email protected]

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