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The Lake Where You Live: The ice takes hold

November 28, 2019 by Ted Rulseh

As the education coordinator for Friends of Birch Lake, I get messages this time of year from folks who don’t live here full-time, wondering about the state of the lake’s ice. So it falls to me to check it out and give a report.

What’s the state of your lake’s ice? Have you taken a look? Ventured out carefully to test its soundness? It’s been a bit of a strange ice-in period. Driving around I’m surprised at some of the lakes still open (Big Carr, for one, anyway as of last Friday).

We’ve had a very early freeze — Birch Lake sheeted over on Nov. 8, almost two weeks earlier than in any of the six previous years we have lived here. Since then we have had alternating warm and cold spells, generally not good for ice stability. 

But, people were asking me about the ice, and so last Sunday I paid the lake a visit. Given the weekend’s warmer weather I was a bit doubtful about what I would find. From our windows I had seen wind-stirred water as recently as the previous Friday, either an open patch or just some melt water atop the ice; I couldn’t be sure which.

Heading down the steps I heard a long, almost musical note of ice booming — generally a good sign rather than one to fear. And down at the lake, when I stepped over the narrow band of water up against the shoreline, the ice took me aboard without complaint. 

Patches of thin snow made an abstract pattern on the ice, which was an opaque gray-white, leaving no hope of looking through to observe the lake bottom. Between the snow patches, the ice was slick, perhaps from the 40 degrees and sunshine doing just a little melting. Ice creepers on my hiking boots would not have been a bad idea.

I found a few stress cracks where the warm weekend had melted fissures about a quarter-inch wide. Some water had welled up there and dampened the snow, but there was no sign of weakness.  

Animal tracks were everywhere, some on the snow patches, but most on the bare ice, the imprints apparently made when recent rains turned the snow atop the ice to slush. These prints had expanded and rounded out so that it was impossible to tell what made them, except that a few were obviously the hoofprints of deer. 

I saw no evidence of anyone having tried the early ice for walleyes or bluegills. In fact I didn’t see any prints on snow or in frozen slush that I could be sure were human.

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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