Ice on lakes means winter is truly here

John Schandelmeier
Air bubbles and ice crystals on the surface of Jewel Lake in November 2009. One inch of good, clear ice will support most people but Schandelmeier feels safer with three inches. Six inches is more reasonable on the larger lakes, which have springs and warm spots. The ice near to shore is especially untrustworthy early in the season.
BILL ROTH / Daily News archive 2009

Five below zero this morning! The north wind ceased its howl and Paxson Lake finally had ice!

The first skim over the big lake still excites me. If you have never watched while a lake freezes over, you probably think me a bit crazy, but I can tell you, it is much more interesting than watching paint dry.

Invariably, the wind must blow and cool the surface of the water body to near air temperature. Small pans of ice form out toward the center and, as one watches, they link. One minute there is just floating ice, a blink and they are all connected.

Ice on the large lakes means that winter has come to Alaska. Ponds become meadows, lakes are landing strips and our rivers return to being highways.

Okay, maybe I pushed it a little on this particular morning. At 2 a.m. I woke my wife to tell her the lake had froze. I got an interested "really?" in response. She didn't jump up to look, though.

I waited until 6:30 to test it. Good thing I had knee boots on.

Several winters ago, Paxson Lake iced over in mid-afternoon. At first light, we watched a small group of caribou test it, led by a single cow cautiously nosing her way onto the slick new surface. She gained confidence and soon was followed by a half-dozen more in a spread-out single file. It was three-quarters of a mile across the lake and there had to be no more than an inch of ice, but they made it.

Caribou are not dependable indicators of safe ice. Quite often they break through, and fortunately, most are able to struggle out. Moose are better gauges; they rarely go out on unsafe surfaces, and if a thousand-pound moose can make it, it's likely that a person can too.

One inch of good, clear ice will support most people. Personally, I feel safer with three inches. Six inches is more reasonable on the larger lakes, which have springs and warm spots. The ice near to shore is especially untrustworthy early in the season. Seeps, small springs and creeks keep ice thin near these areas.

Winter travelers along the river systems should always be cautious. River ice is not entirely safe at any temperature. Strong currents and riffles keep areas open that are often disguised by snow cover.

Today, most back-country travelers are on snowmobiles. They are fast and thus can get in trouble in a hurry.

A couple of caribou hunters near Paxson drove their machines into an area of wide-open lake early one season. Heavy ice fog and excessive speed put them in water deep enough to stand up and drink. They left their machines and rifles in the lake and were able to walk until rescuers found them. They were lucky to escape with relatively minor frostbite.

The lesson: slow down and carry matches. A small ziplock bag with book matches and a couple of folded paper towels in an outside pocket will get you out of trouble in most instances.

Overflow is another winter hazard associated with ice. The most common cause of overflow is new snow on thin ice. The weight of the snow causes the ice to sag and the resulting pressure forces water up through cracks, where it is insulated from freezing by snow cover.

Not a big deal to skiers or the experienced dogsledder, but it can be more than a pain to those on snowmobiles.

There are a couple ways to extract machines from overflow. A good shovel can be used to clear a path to the shoreline, or one can tip the machine on its side and build a solid pad by packing snow into the water until it will support the weight of your sled. I have built 100 yard-long platforms to get back to dry snow.

But the best way to deal with this hazard is avoidance. Stay on the edges of rivers and shorelines of ponds, especially when there is new snow. Go slowly enough to deal with the under-currents along river cut-banks. Use extreme caution on unfamiliar lakes; in some locations, the choice is the shoreline spring or knee-deep overflow.

With all of these cautions, some will say, "I think I'll stay in the house!" Maybe, but then you will be missing the best of what the Alaska outdoors has to offer. Winter gives the opportunity to experience open-country travel to places totally inaccessible during the summer months. Break out the skis and snowshoes. Fire up the snowmobile and hook up the dogs. There is ice!

John Schandelmeier of Paxson is a lifelong Alaskan and Bristol Bay commercial fisherman. A former champion of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, he has written on the outdoors for several newspapers and magazines.