DULUTH – For a few glorious days this month, ice skaters Up North could see to the bottoms of lakes near the Boundary Waters while gliding on their glassy surfaces.
Some lifelong Cook County residents say Mother Nature treated them to their best-ever experiences skating on "wild ice," which is formed naturally, without any maintenance or manicuring.
"The clarity and quantity of ice has been truly exceptional this year," said Kjersti Vick, marketing director for Visit Cook County.
Such clear, smooth ice is formed from a combination of subfreezing temperatures and a lack of precipitation and wind. The fleeting and relatively rare phenomenon will typically occur on inland lakes in the northern part of the state during Novembers or Decembers with little snow.
Conditions can change at a moment's notice, Vick warned. A weekend snowfall covered parts of the previously smooth surface of Seagull Lake on the Gunflint Trail, and some other lakes have reportedly melted and refrozen much bumpier.
Visit Cook County also urges skaters to always check ice thickness — which should be at least 4 inches for activities on foot — and bring safety gear like ice picks, rope and a dry change of clothes.
"Lakes are constantly moving, shifting and changing," Vick said. "It's really important to have a safety plan in place."
Though some of northern Minnesota's midsize lakes might no longer be prime for wild ice skating, forecasters expect a relatively dry December, which could bode well for bigger lakes and lakes farther south that have not frozen over yet. Skaters near Duluth have posted videos in the last week from apparently unblemished ice on Island and Pike lakes.
"The season is still kind of evolving. We'll see what comes of it," said Steve Gohde, a hydrologist and observing program leader with the National Weather Service in Duluth. "But with temperatures like these right now, we're doing nothing but making ice 24 hours a day."
Gohde added that ice formed without snow is generally stronger, providing a better foundation for ice fishing and other more heavy-duty winter lake activities.
Visit Cook County's website has live feeds of several northeastern Minnesota lakes that potential visitors could monitor. Gohde said outfitters and bait shops typically keep tabs on the conditions of nearby lakes.
Cassidy Ritter, manager of Voyageur Canoe Outfitters, said she spotted fishing lures and a live water beetle through the ice while skating near the Boundary Waters earlier this month. When word of the wild ice spread, locals flocked to the lakes, which turned into a reunion of sorts for friends and neighbors holed up during the pandemic.
"We don't see this very often," Ritter said. "We're thankful we had the opportunity to kind of drop everything we were doing and just get outdoors."
Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478