For the 50+ Traveler

You can’t beat the availability of an indoor ice rink for skating or playing hockey. On the other hand, skating outside lets you enjoy nature’s beauty. To do that, however, you need “wild ice.”

What Is Wild Ice?

Wild ice is simply ice on a pond, lake, and, occasionally, a river or stream. You may think there’s bound to be plenty of ice for skating in the northern U.S., and while that is true to an extent, not all of that ice is ideal -- or safe -- for skating.

Lake skaters need ice that is smooth, glassy, and black, which isn’t rare, but it does require a combination of factors to form, said Luigi Romolo, a Minnesota state climatologist to Quetico Superior Wilderness News. Quetico Superior is the wilderness area on the border between Canada and the United States -- often called the Boundary Waters.

“You need really, really cold temperatures that are almost subzero for several days,” Romolo said. “The calmer the conditions the more likely you’ll get black ice.” If it’s windy as the water freezes, air gets mixed into the forming ice, which creates a bumpy, cloudy surface.

Finally, even after a lake freezes over, the resulting ice often isn’t thick enough to support human activity. Consequently, lake skaters have to play a “waiting game” for the ice to get thicker -- while hoping it doesn’t snow. That’s because snow covers the ice and forms a layer of insulation, which slows ice accumulation, Romolo said.

Benefits Of Skating On Wild Ice

There’s a reason why skaters are drawn to wild ice on lakes and ponds: It can be beautiful.

“The light in the winter is just spectacular on the ice,” recreational skater Kevin Boyle told Adirondack Explorer. “If you can catch a day when there are bluebird skies and it’s cold, it really is stunning. If the day goes long and you can catch a sunset from the ice, the colors are just amazing.”

This Year’s Wild Ice

Fortunately for those in Minnesota who love wild ice, conditions are optimal right now.

Minnesota Public Radio’s Paul Huttner reported that the state is currently experiencing ideal wild ice. Temperatures dropped into the single digits across northern Minnesota in late October and November, so lakes began freezing early. Plus, the wind was very light at the time, producing glassy ice on many lakes. Finally, a lack of snow has kept the ice in pristine condition.

“Wild ice like this occurs every few years in Minnesota,” Huttner reported. “But this may be one of the best years in a long time depending on your location.

Keep Safety In Mind

While the ice may be beautiful, there is always risk in skating on ponds and lakes.

Indeed, Cook County, Minnesota, posted on social media that “there is nothing more spectacular than wild ice. But it is exactly that, ‘wild.’ It can be glorious, wicked, dangerous, and magical all at the same time. Safety is not guaranteed.”

The question then is this: How do you know when ice is safe? Fortunately, most states’ departments of natural resources (DNR) post ice safety tips on their websites. Here’s a good overview from Minnesota’s DNR:

“You can't judge the strength of ice just by its appearance, age, thickness, temperature, or whether or not the ice is covered with snow. Strength is based on all these factors -- plus the depth of water under the ice, size of the water body, water chemistry and currents, the distribution of the load on the ice, and local climatic conditions.

“There is no such thing as 100 percent safe ice.”

If you do plan to skate on wild ice, be sure to first check for tips from your state’s DNR. Then, be careful and enjoy your time outside.

Further Reading: