Wild ice skating is a choice … if you can find it

Skaters take advantage of rugged ice conditions on Seagull Lake in 2020

Tuscarora Lodge and canoe outfitters

Hunting is a tradition that many Minnesotans embrace. But a predatory instinct doesn’t necessarily mean stalking a deer or a black grouse. At this time of year, “hunting” can be about “wild ice,” smooth, glassy lake surfaces created by a combination of cold temperatures, light winds, and a lack of snow. It’s the ice of yesteryear, before Zambonis turned skating into an indoor sport. And, of course, a good wild ice cream is never a guarantee. It is this element of the unknown, of the unpredictable, of chance, which makes it a real “hunt” and an obsession for skaters every winter.

Searching for perfectly frozen water may seem odd to some, but skaters in Minnesota know the potential these conditions have for the state’s lakes and rivers. When the wild ice forms, the hunt is on for the best adrenaline rush that combines effortless, smooth skating with clear ice for spectacular beauty.

Hunting for wild ice is akin to seeing and observing the Northern Lights. Getting the conditions right for either of these activities takes patience, constant weather monitoring, and a love of spontaneity. You feel like you are completely at the mercy of nature and come back to a time when humans were not in control. Skating on wild ice is like winning a jackpot combining luck, timing and “hunting instinct”.

Seagull Lake, 2020
Seagull Lake, 2020

Tuscarora Lodge and canoe outfitters

David Welch, a longtime skater living in the Grand Marais, explains, “Wild ice skating is an integral part of Minnesota culture. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, I’m going to skate. I remember when I was a kid we would pull out a bed sheet in the wind and walk down the lake. “

What is it about the wild ice that both inspires fear and excites skaters? “You’re nervous, wondering what’s beneath you, and worry about safety at all times,” Welch explains. “It gives you an incredible rush of whether you’re going to be safe or not, and just the breathtaking beauty of being able to see under the ice to the bottom of the lake. “

Welch, like other veteran savage skaters, takes safety tools with every trip, including ice picks, a throwing rope, and his personal favorite, an ax.

“An ax is a great tool to have,” he says. “One good swipe will tell you how thick the ice cream is. When it’s really thin it’s a little harder to tell how deep it is because it’s so dark. But if you swing the ax and it just goes through, then you know it immediately. “

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources suggests a minimum of 4 inches of ice before walking on the surface. The key is to confirm the actual thickness of the ice before you go. Skating with partners is another essential safety measure.

Ice speed is a big factor in attractiveness, but skaters of all skill levels return for the beauty of exploring the lake environment under the ice as well. “There’s nothing quite like a blue sky day where you can see all the way down,” Welch explains. “I am fascinated as I watch the structure of the lake bottom change up and down. It’s like being on a roller coaster. You skate on that underwater bench, then it falls under you, and it’s like “Whoa!” Skating on the shores is really beautiful for me.

Andrew Anderson of Minneapolis has always been impressed by the air bubbles he sees in ice, as well as other curiosities. “I remember when I was little I would just lay down on the ice and watch the bubbles. They are super psychedelic. I once saw a frog frozen in ice. He was in a swimming position. I saw a beaver swimming under the ice. Transparency and beauty are my favorite part.

Seagull Lake, 2020
Seagull Lake, 2020

Tuscarora Lodge and canoe outfitters

Anderson’s father, Jim Ouray, notes another phenomenon: “Sometimes you can see your shadow at the bottom of the lake, and it doesn’t even seem to be related to you. Your shadow is still connected to you, isn’t it? But in this case, he’s disconnected from you, underwater. Sometimes it looks like the bottom of the lake is rippling.

There is no better place to experience this natural beauty than the Gunflint Trail and its labyrinth of lakes under the boundary waters. Wild ice lovers found their wonderland here in 2020, and skaters have been furiously planning last-minute trips to the north to take advantage of the magnificent conditions. But Anderson and Ouray also found wild ice in 2020 on Island Lake just north of Duluth, on Duluth Harbor, and even on Hiawatha Lake in Minneapolis.

Sharing good ice alerts is a key feature of the wild ice community. Old-fashioned word of mouth still reigns in the wild ice circles, but today there are Facebook pages where people share the updated terms more publicly. For Ouray, the news came out quickly in 2020. “I called my friend Bruce and my other outdoor recreation buddies who live in Minneapolis and told them skating is awesome in the BWCA. We went to Seagull Lake. It was an incredible party. There were about 40 people or maybe more on the ice. It was an amazing opportunity to meet up with friends and go skating together. When everyone is wild ice skating, it’s like a big party.

A critical piece of the puzzle is being able to react quickly. The transience of smooth ice means there might not be a second chance. Welch sees the ever-changing ice as a unique challenge. “That’s what makes him so amazing,” he says. “When it’s good to skate, you take it, because it’s going to go away soon.” With life being so busy with everything – kids, work, and everything in between – it’s hard to let it all go, but you just have to. It doesn’t always work for going out, but when you do, you just smile.

Raven Rock Grill
Raven Rock Grill


Eat / Stay / Play on the Gunflint Trail

To eat
Raven Rock Grill at Skyport Lodge on Devil Track Lake is a short walk from the Gunflint Trail on the way back to the Grand Marais. Their rich dishes like beef tostadas with lime and cilantro cream, chili cheese fries and unlimited fresh herring from Lake Superior are delicious after a day of wild ice skating. Herring is offered five evenings a week.

To stay
Poplar Creek Guesthouse is a truly secluded and comfortable lodge 30 miles from the Gunflint Trail in Grand Marais. The guesthouse is run by Ted and Barbara Young, who have been the custodians of the adjacent Banadad ski slope since its inception in 1982. Ski outside your door to the Banadad slope or go to the hot tub afterwards a day of skates.

If the rugged ice conditions aren’t conducive to skating, try getting your skis out instead. The Banadad Trail is an approximately 17-mile cross-country ski trail that winds through the BWCA, right next to the Gunflint Trail. One of only two groomed BWCA ski slopes, the Banadad offers skiing in a wild setting. Here you can also ski from yurt to yurt and have your gear and food transported by Boundary Country Trekking.

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