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If you're not careful, winter water sports can leave you on thin ice

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If you're not careful, winter water sports can leave you on thin ice

Winter fun with a frozen lake

Throughout what seems to be always-too-short summer days, Lake Pend Oreille, along with the area’s many smaller lakes and rivers, becomes the focus for summer fun. Boating, swimming, water-skiing, fishing... it seems there’s always something to do on the water. And then the temperature drops.

When winter’s snow begins to fall, many head up the mountain with skis and boards only to hurl themselves with speed down again. Others, of a more hardy bent, strap on the snowshoes and explore their favorite forest trails shrouded in a blanket of white. But there’s a band of people for whom cold and snow only make the lake and other water bodies more attractive.

What can you do on a frozen lake? Skating and ice fishing are obvious choices, and for those with a passion for their sport—say Jim Seyfert, Jim Mellen and mountain biking—the water in all its frozen glory becomes an irresistible new trail.

“Whenever someone comes up with a really stupid idea, I am all ears,” laughed Jim Mellen of his friend Jim Seyfert’s idea to take their mountain bikes out on frozen Lake Pend Oreille last year. “I like the lake, I like ice, and I like biking, so it seems like a good marriage. I like doing new things and I figure that at my age, I had better do all I can while I still can,” he added.

Jim Seyfert says of that first trip, “That ride was just after that long period of single digit temps we had, and we all felt it would be super safe to go out on the ice at that time. The ice was thick, I think you could have driven a truck over it. A little fresh snow made it easy to ride on.” And what drove the impulse? “Not to be too glib, but it’s true... (1) because it’s there, (2) we have studded tires on our bikes and (3) first and foremost we are bike riders and it just seemed like the right thing to do! Being a little crazy, doesn’t hurt, either.”

The pair have gone out on the ice many times since, and so far, the results have been good. “We have not fallen through the ice,” Mellen said, “but it has creaked a few times and it got a bit slushy in a couple of places on our last ride. For safety, definitely use the buddy system and try to stay where it is shallow.”

Seyfert added, “Jim Mellen stepped through some thinner ice at a place where we were crossing a stream inlet into the lake,” and he follows up with words that indicate a true ice hound. “Don’t really think he even got his foot wet, but it was a little scary when it happened and thrilling for him, I’m sure.” (Emphasis added.)

Matt Haag, a conservation officer with Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game, warns that ice in North Idaho is “a different beast” and requires “special attention” before you venture out to play.

For Matt, ice is not accessible until it’s at least four inches thick. Remember that four inches thick at water’s edge might not be four inches thick in the middle of the lake where you want to play, so go carefully.

At 5 inches thick the ice should support a small four-wheeler or snowmobile; make sure there’s at least 15” of thickness (there’s not that right now) before you head out over frozen water in a small truck.

In fact, when it comes to cars and trucks, Matt points out, “In our part of Idaho driving a full size vehicle out on the ice is not only stupid it could get you a Darwin Award. Driving an ATV or snowmobile should only be considered after a careful analysis of the ice depth. Typically 5 inches of nice clear ice is a minimum for ATVs, or snowmobiles.

So stay off the water with your big rig.

Like I said earlier, ice thickness at the edge of the water, when you first step on to it, is no guarantee of ice thickness once you begin to move. “The big factors that influence ice thickness are wind and current,” Matt explains. “If you are fishing bays on the big lake look for signs of ice stacking from high winds. Wind can make for extremely uneven ice. Ice will form further out on the lake and blow in toward shore in sheets. The ice will stack on top of one another or even worse yet, the frozen chucks that floated in will freeze together in an uneven mess. This produces thick ice with weak thin ice connecting the chucks. Current from various sources such as underground springs, culverts, and creek outlets can erode the underside of the ice. If you are unaware of the location of these potential hazards it could make for a wet, cold day.”

Jim Seyfert adds, for safety’s sake, “Don’t do it alone, just in case. Don’t ride out too close to the water’s edge (duh!) and look ahead for changes in the ice and listen as thin ice will creak first as you go over it (just before it fails!).”

The Jims are part of Pend Oreille Pedalers bike club in Sandpoint; visit their website to learn more.

And if you play it safe you might find out, when you get your bike out on the ice, what Jim Mellen did: “I forgot to mention... ice biking is a blast!”

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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

sports, winter, ice biking, Jim Seyfert, Jim Mellen, Matt Haag, Pend Oreille Pedalers

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