Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Perfect lake ice conditions form for winter enthusiasts in Northern Minnesota

A sailboat-like boat with a white sail on the ice
Caige Jambor
An iceboat reflects on the ice on Grass Lake in Bemidji in early December 2023.

Area lakes are mostly snow-free as of early December. It’s perfect for skating and ice boating and John Latimer and Marshall Helmberger are taking advantage of the remarkable time.

NORTHERN MINNESOTA — KAXE Staff Phenologist John Latimer doesn't dream of a white Christmas. He dreams of snow-free ice on area lakes, where he can skate and iceboat to his heart’s content near his hometown of Grand Rapids.

An avid ice skater, John loves a December (or any other month in winter) without snow.

“There's something just liberating about looking at a sheet of ice and just realizing, ‘You know, I want to skate for 7 miles in that direction,’” Latimer said.

John talked about this year’s experience to Marshall Helmberger of the Timberjay newspaper on the KAXE Morning Show.

“I live on a small lake. It's shallow. It generally freezes early,” John said. “Every year, I go out and I skate a circumnavigation of the shore. You know, I just skate the whole lake, and last year I got one lap and it snowed and that was the end. And this year I've had several laps already.”

Three people and a dog stand on the ice near iceboats
Caige Jambor
KAXE Staff Phenologist John Latimer, left, stands among iceboats on Grass Lake in Bemidji in early December 2023.

Marshall has also had a good skating year.

“If it wasn’t for the ice, we would have nothing to do right now,” he said. “I mean, there's no snow to ski on or anything like that.”

Like John, Marshall has been skating a lot already this year on several area lakes and rivers near his home close to Tower.

A large chunk of ice sits on a glass-like surface of ice on a lake.
Andrea "Kleinschmidt" Heldt via KAXE-KBXE Season Watch Facebook group
A large chunk of ice sits on a glass-like surface of ice on a lake.

“I’ve stayed mostly on Lost Lake, which is near my house,” Marshall said. “But this year I have also been skating on the East Two River, which is right in the city of Tower.”

Marshall follows the river right into Pike Bay on Lake Vermilion.

Both use Nordic skates, or blades that attach to the bottom of skate ski boots. Marshall explained portaging between lakes is easier with quick removal of blades from the boots.

Ice safety

Safety equipment while skating on lakes is a must. Even for the daredevil John.

“I've always been nervous about skating on rivers,” John said. “Just because of the movement of the water underneath.”

“This is more of a channel,” according to Marshall, explaining there’s very little movement of the water on the East Two River.

Ski poles also make John feel safer. “You can use them for propulsion when you get tired of leg power. The other thing is, they strap around your wrists. That way if you do go through, your first instinct is to spread your hands out and catch yourself, and if you're carrying something, you're gonna lose it.

“And I have this (bad) dream being armpit deep in the lake and my picaroon being, like, 5 feet out of reach. But the ski poles are always there.”

“If it wasn’t for the ice, we would have nothing to do right now."
Marshall Helmberger

Both John and Marshall carry ice picks, and John wears an inflatable life jacket. Even with these safety precautions, both have fallen through the ice in shallow water before, but they’ve been lucky. Safety equipment and thinking ahead enabled them to quickly get out of the cold water. They both know cold water under the frozen lakes of Minnesota is no joke.

Even though John and Marshall are thrilled with this year’s ice conditions personally, it’s important to remember no ice is ever completely safe. There should be at least 4 inches if you are walking or skating. Check the ice at least every 150 feet.

How to self-rescue on thin ice

In past years, Mark Morrissey from the outdoor education program at Bemidji State University has shared tips on how to self-rescue if you've fallen through thin ice. He demonstrates his techniques in the video above.

Iceboating season

In addition to ice skating this season, John has been iceboating on area lakes. An iceboat is a recreational sailing craft on metal runners for traveling over ice. One of the runners is steerable.

There’s specific conditions needed for iceboating, like ice skating on lakes. Cold, but not snowy weather is what creates a season of iceboating.

John told Marshall about a recent trip when he wished he had a helmet for safety.

"We were iceboating, and this fellow had a skiing or snowboarding helmet and I looked it over and they looked pretty, pretty cool,” John said. “They're much lighter. I have a motorcycle helmet that I use for iceboating, but it is so heavy.”

For Marshall, his snowboarding helmet is not just lighter and protective while skating, it keeps him warm without having to wear a hat.

Bonus snapping turtle content

During the conversation with Marshall about ice skating conditions, a text came in from Kayla in Akeley:

“I was out skating last Saturday on a small lake by Nevis, Minnesota, and found 20 or so snapping turtles under the ice, all on the south shore and very close to each other. They were not burrowed in sediment but appeared to be sitting directly under the ice and not moving. Will they stay like that for most of the winter?”

John responded, “As far as I know, that's the habit of the snapping turtle. I have seen the same thing. I've seen them under the ice and ... they can take in oxygen through their skin to kind of augment the the oxygen that they might otherwise use.”

Connect with us!

There’s a lot to do and see outside in northern Minnesota, even in the winter. Tell us your stories, and send us a text to 218-326-1234 or via email!

Stay Connected
Heidi Holtan is KAXE's Director of Content and Public Affairs where she manages producers and is the local host of Morning Edition from NPR. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North.
Jennifer has worked at Northern Community Radio since 2006 and spent 17 years as Membership Manager. She shifted to a host/producer position in 2023. She hosts the Monday Morning Show and is the local host of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" a few days a week. She also writes public services announcements and creates web stories.