The astronomical start of winter occurs on Dec. 21, the solstice. But as a practical matter the season begins in Wisconsin when snow covers the fields and ice tops the lakes.
The early days of winter in the Badger State carry unique excitement and opportunities. For anglers, "first ice" often brings excellent fishing. For snowmobilers and ATV riders, frozen waterways provide new paths for exploration.
But the ice also presents safety hazards. Each year, falls through ice in Wisconsin result in deaths and injuries. Other mishaps on the ice require expensive and risky rescues.
Several hardwater accidents this season already have required emergency responses across the state, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Fortunately none was fatal.
But with the 2022-23 ice season upon us, on Friday DNR safety experts issued a reminder of top safety issues for those who venture onto frozen waters.
Major April Dombrowski, DNR recreational safety and outdoor skills section chief, started with the message that no ice is completely safe.
“Temperature swings, strong winds, currents, underground springs feeding lakes and rivers vary widely across Wisconsin,” Dombrowski said in a statement. “These factors are why no ice is ever considered safe, especially not this early in the season.”
Since the DNR does not monitor ice conditions, it recommends anglers, snowmobilers and others who plan to set out on frozen waters contact local fishing clubs, bait shops or outfitters for information.
Dombrowski said such businesses and organizations routinely check ice conditions and can provide the best and most current information.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources publishes a general guide for ice travel. It calls for at least 4 inches of clear ice for foot travel, 5 to 7 inches for a small ATV or snowmobile, 7 to 8 inches for a side-by-side ATV, 9 to 10 inches for a small car, 11 to 12 inches for a medium SUV or small truck, 16 to 17 inches for a heavy-duty truck and 20 inches or more for a heavy-duty truck with a wheelhouse shelter.
But it comes with the caveat that conditions vary greatly and the guide assumes solid, clear ice.
Ice safety experts say it's vital to look for characteristics of a waterbody that can lead to weaker ice, including currents, inlets, outlets and springs. Also some lakes have aerators that keep water open or lead to thin ice.
Once on the ice, Dombrowski said it's important to stay alert to conditions. People may encounter pressure ridges, cracks or ice heaves, for example.
It's also important to pay attention to the weather, especially wind. Each year anglers in the Upper Midwest are rescued from ice floes that get blown into open water by high winds.
The DNR cited Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin's largest lake, as a water prone to ice heaves and pressure ridges. And it named Green Bay as a water in which ice can break away, stranding anglers.
Shipping channels are maintained through much or all of winter in the 120-mile long bay, said DNR marine warden team supervisor Lt. Ryan Propson, and users must pay extra attention to changing weather conditions, including high winds, and be knowledgeable of the maintenance of the navigation channel to avoid becoming stranded on free-floating icebergs.
The DNR urges people who plan to venture on the ice to plan ahead and have appropriate safety gear, as well as let others know where they are going.
Ice safety tips from the DNR
Always remember that ice is never completely safe under any conditions.
Fish or walk with a friend. It's safer and more fun.
Contact local sport shops to ask about ice conditions on the lake or river you want to fish.
Carry a cellphone and let people know where you are going and when you'll return.
Wear proper clothing and equipment, including a life jacket or a float coat to help you stay afloat and to help slow body heat loss.
Wear creepers attached to boots to prevent slipping on clear ice.
Carry a spud bar to check the ice while walking to new areas.
Carry a couple of spikes and a length of light rope in an easily accessible pocket to help pull yourself or others out of the ice.
Do not travel in unfamiliar areas or at night.
Know if the lake has inlets, outlets or narrows that have currents that can thin the ice.
Look for clear ice. Clear ice is generally stronger than ice with air bubbles in it or with snow on it.
Watch out for pressure ridges or ice heaves. These can be dangerous due to thin ice and open water.
Take extra mittens or gloves so you always have a dry pair.
Driving on ice is always a risk. Use good judgment and consider alternatives.
Check out the DNR’s Ice Safety webpage for more information on staying safe on the ice, including tips for creating ice claws and what to do if you fall through ice.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Ice safety tips from the Wisconsin DNR