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Jerry Ness has driven across Medicine Lake every winter for most of his 72 years so he was taken aback Thursday when Hennepin County sheriff's deputies barricaded the ice road and posted the "Road Closed" sign.
For the first time in decades, Hennepin County is banning cars, trucks and SUVs from all of its 104 named lakes and other bodies of water. Unseasonably warm weather and unpredictable ice conditions have plunged eight vehicles into the water since mid-January -- six in the past seven days.
Across the state, four people have died this year after falling through the ice. None of the fatalities were in Hennepin County but "there's been a couple of close calls," said Lisa Kiava, the sheriff's spokeswoman.
"The ice condition varies. It's a foot in some places and then you go a few feet and it's a thin veneer," she said. "There's no rhyme or reason to it."
Snowmobiles and ATVs will continue to be allowed on the lakes.
Cold-loving Minnesotans have been frustrated by this winter that isn't.
"Oh my gosh, this is the goofiest winter ever, as far as ice conditions, that I can remember in my 30 years with the DNR," said Tim Smalley, water safety specialist with the Department of Natural Resources. "I bought a new snowblower this fall, and then we get no snow."
Balmy temperatures and a dearth of snow have canceled winter festivals and cross-country ski races in one of the state's warmest winters on record. Ice rinks come and go. And nary a snowman can be found.
And now an end to driving on ice, a winter tradition for generations of Minnesotans.
"This is terrible," said Ness, who lives on the west side of Medicine Lake in Plymouth. "It's devastating. I'm sitting here in my truck on the ice. It's terrible on some lakes. But not here," he said. "This lake is as safe as there is."
Maybe, but just three days earlier an SUV broke through the Medicine Lake ice.
Officials in other metro counties also warned of dangerous ice conditions on local water, but none have banned driving on all frozen lakes.
Five vehicles have gone through the ice in Ramsey County this winter. The Sheriff's Office closed Turtle Lake in Shoreview and Bald Eagle Lake in White Bear Township to vehicular traffic earlier this winter because of thin ice, but no other restrictions have been issued, said Randy Gustafson, a county spokesman.
Crews already have placed signs warning drivers of uncertain ice conditions on access roads leading to county lakes, and officials plan to reassess ice conditions Friday and map out "a game plan for February," Gustafson said.
No vehicles will be allowed on Ham Lake in Anoka County for the annual Snowbowl event this weekend and Lake Marion in Dakota County has been closed to all motorized traffic since Jan. 31.
It's travel at your own risk on Washington County lakes, said Jim Gribble of the county's Water Patrol. "The Sheriff's Office never encourages vehicle traffic on the ice," Gribble said. The county last closed its lakes in the winter of 2005-06.
In Goodhue County, the Upper Boat Harbor on the Mississippi River also is closed to all motor vehicles, while Lake Pepin and Frontenac Watershed in Florence Township are closed to cars and trucks.
The Hennepin County ban on cars, trucks and SUVs could make it difficult for some anglers to haul their ice houses off by the March 5 deadline. In those cases, county officials suggested anglers call the sheriff's office to discuss options.
Colder up north
Conditions up north are a bit better.
"Once in a while we hear of some truck's front wheels going through in a lake up there, but not much," said the DNR's Smalley.
Some anglers already have raised the white flag. Southwest of the metro area, a seven-county DNR survey found the fewest number of fishing shacks on area lakes in 35 years. 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.
It's just been too darn warm.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' climatology office reported that the period from Dec. 1 through Feb. 7 was the second-warmest in local records. The average temperature for the period, 27 degrees, is 9 degrees above normal.
A forecast low of 1 below Friday night would be only the fourth subzero reading of the season in the Twin Cities, but temperatures will soar above freezing again next week.
Die-hard anglers, however, continue to find a way onto the ice. Pat Heilman of Robbinsdale has left his Ford Explorer on shore all winter, toting his fishing gear aboard an ATV.
Dave Schutt of St. Louis Park has spent the winter walking his collapsible fish house onto metro lakes. "You just can't be sure about the ice," he said. "And I love my truck too much."
With the sun sinking low in the sky on Thursday, Barney Barnaal, 77, and Darrell Kaelke, 70, loaded their fishing gear and a bucket of sunfish into the back of the truck parked at the Medicine Lake shoreline just minutes after deputies had barricaded ice road access. Thursday's closure won't bother Barnaal, who has ventured onto the ice with his truck only three or four times this season.
"I've lived out here since '63 and I normally drive out here all the time," he said, after walking his gear to shore on Thursday. "It's a lot handier when you can drive out there. But not this year. For me, even in the good years, I'm always glad when I get off the ice."
Staff Writers Paul Walsh, Tim Harlow, Paul Levy, Pamela Miller, Bill McAuliffe and Pat Pheifer contributed to this report.
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788