Halfway through January, many Minnesota events that depend on ice-covered lakes are falling through.
From Canada to Iowa, weeks of freakish warmth have undermined ice cover, jeopardizing winter festivals and leading many to stay off lake ice completely.
"There have been no fatalities so far, thank goodness," said Kim Elverum, boat and water safety coordinator for the state Department of Natural Resources.
But Elverum got a report this week of a truck crashing through ice on Lake of the Woods, on the state's northern border, where ice should be several feet thick. In Minneapolis, the 11th annual Lake Harriet Winter Kite Festival, already postponed from Jan. 14 to Jan. 21, was canceled altogether Friday by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board because the lake still has open water. The Brainerd Jaycees' annual ice fishing festival on Gull Lake, billed as the world's largest charitable ice fishing contest, has been postponed from Jan. 21 to Feb. 11.
Southwest of the metro area, a seven-county DNR survey found the fewest number of fishing shacks on area lakes in 35 years. In Walker, in north-central Minnesota, DNR fisheries specialist Bill Evarts said even without a survey, it's been clear that far fewer people than normal are driving vehicles onto Leech Lake, an ice-fishing mecca. Ice is 14 inches thick there, "but the trouble is, there are some iffy spots," Evarts said.
From the winter of 1976-77 through last winter, Minnesota averaged 6.2 ice-related deaths. The worst winter was 1982-83, with 22 deaths. The average has been dropping in recent years, and was at 4 for the past 10 winters.
On Beebe Lake, in the west metro, a boy was rescued Friday after he fell into a hole left after an ice house that had slumped through the ice Thursday was pulled out. Jayson Steffens of St. Michael, who was ice fishing 50 feet away, said it appeared the boy's father was building an ice shack about 30 feet from the hole when the boy wandered over and fell in. The father tossed his jacket to the boy and pulled him out. A dog also plunged into the hole Friday, Steffens said.
He said the ice under his shack is 9 inches thick; around the hole where the shack fell through, it was 8 inches. The DNR recommends that ice be at least 4 inches to support walking and ice fishing, and 8 to 12 inches to support a car.
In south-central Minnesota, where many shallow, weedy lakes are oxygenated during winter with mechanical bubblers, the bubblers have blown enormous gaps in the ice during recent warm weather, said Gene Jeseritz, assistant supervisor in the DNR's regional fisheries office in Hutchinson. One result: Even the "Thin Ice" warning signs have disappeared into the water.
The Hutchinson office recently found only 111 ice houses on lakes across Meeker, McLeod, Renville, Redwood, Sibley, Brown and Nicollet counties. The average going back to 1977 is 734. Officials there blame the warmth, but also portable tents and cell phones anglers use to quickly move to where fish are biting.
Lakes in the Hutchinson region now have a spring-like appearance, Jeseritz said, dominated by open water. "For fish, that would be a good thing," he said, noting that the water is getting oxygen and light. Yet this year's experience seems to amplify a long-term trend featuring higher temperatures, thinner ice and shorter winters across the region, Jeseritz said.
"Is it global warming? It doesn't really matter," he said. "What we do know is that things are changing."
Meanwhile, forecasts well into next week call for only minimal chances of snow. In northeastern Minnesota, organizers of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, scheduled to begin Jan. 29, plan to announce Monday whether the event will even be held.
Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646