We have Winter at least six months of the year up here in Ely, Minnesota. It begins for the most part and most often in October. Not always, but often of late our lakes (we’ve got 10,000 in the state) begin to freeze up in the middle of November. In fact over a decade ago, the opening date for Darkhouse Spearing (fishing for Northern Pike inside a darkened house on top of the ice using a fish decoy and spear like the Native Americans used to and still do under blankets) was officially changed to November 15th. Over the last twenty years we’ve only had good safe ice by that date at most a handful of times, you can usually count on no more open water by Thanksgiving each year.
The lakes which are obviously fully liquid all Spring, Summer and Fall form first a skim and then a crust of ice that thickens and grows each night. There are different charts of safe depths for when it is safe to walk, ride a snowmobile or atv, drive a car or truck and take out a big ice house for regular ice fishing and living in overnight. We plow “ice roads” here in Ely so locals can take short cuts across the lakes when the ice is deep enough with their cars and trucks and also to make it easier to get out to ice houses. The lakes become “land” as they first crust and then freeze over. As our temperature drop and drop, often reaching lower than negative 30, 35, 40, 45 and sometimes 50 below zero at night without windchill factors the ice grows.
Many ice augers (think large drill bits, really large) have three foot shafts and by the time we reach late January and early February, many of those will need an extension to get through the ice. Yes, it isn’t uncommon to drill through 38 inches or more of ice to cut a fishing hole. We use ice saws to cut rectangular blocks of ice out for Darkhouse Spearing and let me tell you it is a job to get ice tongs on a block of ice three feet thick, two feet wide and three feet long.
There are people who still cut huge blocks like that and keep them all summer insulated in ice houses to use as their refrigeration, just like they did generations ago. They usually do this in March. At that point of winter walking on water seems like old hat, no big deal, but it still requires you to check for your safety and to be prepared in case the ice is eroded and deteriorated by stress cracks or current flowing underneath. Sometimes, beaver activity under the ice keeps invisible lanes open that don’t compromise the surface of the ice visually but destroy it underneath. This is a dangerous situation that is hard to see or find without falling through. Having a chisel with you to test the ice in front as you walk is a necessity.
In March and April in Ely, Minnesota we generally receive the most precipitation of our Winter. Lots of snow when it is warmer and when almost everyone else in the nation is experiencing the first greening up of Spring. We still commonly have temperatures in the 20s and 30s. Below freezing. Making even more ice when folks South of here are planting gardens.
So Ice out? What’s the big deal? Why do we talk about ice out and the date it might “go out” so much in the Spring. Most of all, we discuss it because Winter, after six months, gets old. We long for open water and we are ready to paddle our canoes and go camping in the Boundary Waters along the routes that include 2000 lakes and rivers only accessible by canoe and portaging by foot in between them. We are ready to be free and liquid. Tired of walking on water and driving on it for that matter. We wait for the warmer temperatures and the wind and the rain to finally rot the ice. It eventually changes in color from clear to dark and begins to absorb even more sunlight. It begins to erode from underneath and on top each day. As it gets thinner and thinner and the winds increase and especially if it rains in April, it “rots” and begins to “candle” and break apart. You can hear it and see it, sometimes in big sheets rapidly flowing down a lake or just a little at a time. Sitting and listening to the cracking, tinkling, crunching and flowing of ice in the evening as darkness seeps in soaks up the last moments of daylight is not an experience most people on the planet have.
Each year it seems, or most average years, there’s some doubt as to whether the ice will go out before Minnesota Walleye Fishing Opener. Usually this falls on either the 8th or 13th of May, the second full weekend of the month. We make guesses and enter contests and some people bet on when the ice will disappear.
Before the ice goes for good each year, swans return to Ely (we have about 21 of them that visit) and waterfowl of different types come to the small spots of open water on the edges of the lakes and to the rivers that free up first.
Ice is out. Well not yet in 2023. It is May 5th and to our knowledge all of the lakes are still locked up although we have warm days with sunshine and rain ahead over the next week. Here’s a couple of pics and a poem about our hopeful attitude about Spring that has almost arrived.
Each spot of river
or current cleared lake pocket
is crowded with spring sound
and feathered friends
Each patch of sunlight
strong on the living room floor
with Southern exposure
by a cat or dog.
Sidewalks have green
grass between the squares
and feel soaked with invitation;
expanding in the hours since dawn.
Merganserish, we push
hands into sweatshirt pockets,
raise hoodies –
done with the down.
No parka, no boots.
Paddling in small ponds.
change. Sponging up the
songs of red poles, chipping sparrows and goldfinch.
Saving a soundtrack
against the return of depth,
we savor the shallow.
©Timothy James Stouffer #elystreetpoet All Rights Reserved
Ely, Minnesota 05/02/2023