Scott Rall: There's really no such thing as safe ice

Scott Rall
Scott Rall

The Internet is all abuzz the past few weeks with photos of cars and trucks at the bottom of area lakes. Lake Shetek had several vehicles fall through the ice about two weeks ago.

I decided to call up the area conservation officer, Andrew Dirks, to get his take on ice conditions and other issues he sees during the hard water periods.

As usual, we started out with the fact that it takes four inches of good ice to support foot traffic. It takes 6-7 inches of good ice to support ATVs and side-by-sides. Small cars need about 7-12 inches and full-size trucks need 12 inches or more of ice to be considered reasonably safe.

Remember, there is no such thing as safe ice. There is a big difference between good ice and marginal ice.

Good ice is dense and clear. When cutting a hole, it comes off in sharp crystals. Poor ice is milky, like melted and refrozen slush. Officer Dirks pointed out that with all of the warm/cold/rainy weather we had mixed into the past three weeks, ice conditions are not anywhere normal for this time of year.


I am about as scared a cat as you can be when it comes to ice travel, and even I had a close call last week. I went back to a spot where I had set a spearing house 10 days earlier. I had marked the large hole with a branch to keep others from walking into or driving across the area that was recently opened.

This is not required by law, but any ethical sportsman will look out for other lake users.

The hole was about 3 feet by 5 feet. I shoveled the snow off the area and figured I would open the same hole as the ice would not be as thick as the surrounding ice.

It had been 10 days earlier and the ice was about 10 inches thick the first time. I started the auger and drilled a hole and found myself standing on only two inches of ice. I knew it would not be 10 inches thick, but I surely thought it would be at least five inches.

I was so wrong. I escaped a dangerous situation but it set me back about 200 percent toward even more caution when on the ice.

We then discussed the licensing of different kinds of angling or spearing houses. Any hard-sided house needs a shelter license even if it’s not left on the ice overnight. If a house of any kind has a period of un-occupation then it needs a shelter license. A portable tent type house does not need a license if it is not left unattended or let standing on the ice overnight.

In addition to less than great ice thickness conditions, there are pressure ridges on many area lakes. Lake Okabena has one off the northwest shore.

Some good Samaritan just saved a full dog that fell through the ice at a pressure ridge site. Never ever drive over a pressure ridge.


East Graham Lake was reported to have pretty good ice on the south end (about 10 inches) but as little as 3-4 inches up on the north end past the county park. I had had many reports of ice anglers seeing 10 inches of ice turn to three inches of ice in a distance of only about 50 feet. My saying about ice travel has always been, “I won’t go anywhere that at least 50 other people have not gone before me.” Even with this as my motto I still almost had a screw-up.

Many anglers travel by ATV or side-by-side. Officer Dirks mentioned that those types of recreational vehicles’ license tabs expire in December. He has seen many expired plates.

Don’t let this be one of you. Your boat most likely expired that same month as well. Officer Dirks was also notified that the aeration systems on Indian Lake and Round Lake are now in operation and several others will most likely be starting soon.

With all of the uncertainties we face this winter season, use an abundance of caution when traveling on the ice. Remember to pick up your trash and that of others who don’t act the way they should.

Outdoor winter recreation is a Minnesota mainstay. Enjoy your time outdoors, just do it in a way that will allow you to enjoy it for 50 more years.

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