Hunting is a tradition that many Minnesotans embrace. But a predator instinct doesn’t have to mean tracking deer or pointing grouse. This time of year, the “hunt” can be for “wild ice”—glassy smooth lake surfaces created by a combination of cold temps, low winds, and lack of snow cover. This is the ice of old, before Zambonis turned skating into an indoor sport. And, of course, good wild ice is never a guarantee. It’s this element of the unknown, the unpredictable, the happenstance, that makes this a true “hunt” and obsession for skaters each winter.
Pursuing perfect frozen water may sound odd to some, but Minnesota skaters know the potential that these conditions hold for the state’s lakes and rivers. When wild ice forms, the hunt is on for the best adrenaline rush that combines effortless and smooth skating with transparent ice for spectacular beauty.
Hunting for wild ice is akin to watching for and viewing the northern lights. Getting the right conditions for either pursuit takes patience, constant weather watching, and a love of spontaneity. There’s a sense of being completely at the mercy of nature and back to a time when humans aren’t in control. Skating on wild ice is like hitting a jackpot of a combination of good luck, timing, and “hunter’s instinct.”
David Welch, a lifetime skater living in Grand Marais, explains: “Wild-ice skating is a greater part of Minnesota’s culture. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, going out skating. I remember as a kid we would take a bed sheet out in the wind and just fly down the lake.”
What is it about wild ice that both instills fear and excites skaters? “You’re on edge, wondering what’s below you, and addressing safety at all times,” Welch says. “It gives you an incredible rush of whether or not you’re going to be safe, and just the jaw-dropping beauty of being able to see underneath the ice to the bottom of the lake.”
Welch, like other veteran wild skaters, takes safety tools on every trip, including ice picks, a throw rope, and his personal favorite—an axe.
“An axe is a really good tool to have,” he says. “Just one good swing will tell you how thick the ice is. When it’s really thin, it’s a little harder to tell how deep it is because it’s so black. But if you swing the axe and it just goes right through, then you know 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 true ice thickness before heading out. Skating with partners is another essential safety measure.
Speed across the ice is a definite factor to the appeal, but skaters of all abilities also come back for the beauty of exploring the lake environment beneath the ice. “There’s nothing like a blue-sky day when you can see right to the bottom,” Welch says. “I get mesmerized by watching the lake floor structure change up and down. It’s like being on a roller coaster. You skate over this underwater shoal, and then it drops off from under you, and it’s like ‘Whoa!’ Skating the shorelines is really beautiful for me.”
Andrew Anderson of Minneapolis has always been awed by the air bubbles he sees in the ice, plus other curiosities. “I remember when I was little, I would just lay on the ice and look at the bubbles. They’re super psychedelic. One time I saw a frog frozen in the ice. It was in the swimming position. I’ve seen a beaver swimming under the ice. The transparency and beauty are my favorite part.”
Anderson’s father, Jim Ouray, notes another phenomenon: “Sometimes you can see your shadow on the lake bottom, and it doesn’t even look connected to you. Your shadow is always connected to you, right? But in this case, it’s disconnected from you, underwater. Sometimes it looks like the bottom of the lake is undulating.”
There’s no better place to experience this natural beauty than the Gunflint Trail and its maze of lakes as part of the Boundary Waters. Wild-ice aficionados found their wonderland here in 2020, and skaters furiously arranged last-minute trips up north to take advantage of the gorgeous conditions. But Anderson and Ouray also found wild ice in 2020 on Island Lake just north of Duluth, on the Duluth Harbor, and even on Hiawatha Lake in Minneapolis.
Sharing good ice alerts is a key trait of the wild-ice community. Old-fashioned word of mouth still reigns in wild-ice circles, but today there are Facebook pages where people share up-to-date conditions more publicly, as well. For Ouray, word got out quickly in 2020. “I called my friend Bruce and my other outdoor recreation buddies who live in Minneapolis and told them the skating was great in the BWCA. We went up to Seagull Lake. It was an incredible party. There were, like, 40 or maybe more people out on the ice. It was an extraordinary opportunity to meet with friends and go skate together. When everybody’s out wild-ice skating, it feels like a big party.”
One critical piece of the puzzle is being able to react quickly. Smooth ice’s ephemerality means there may not be a second chance. Welch sees ever-changing ice as a unique challenge. “That’s what makes it so amazing,” he says. “When it’s good skating, you take it, because it’s going to be gone soon. With life being so busy with whatever—kids, work, and everything else—it’s hard to drop it all, but you’ve just got to do it. It doesn’t always work to get out, but when you do, you’re just grinning.”
Eat/Stay/Play on the Gunflint Trail
Raven Rock Grill at Skyport Lodge on Devil Track Lake is a short hop off the Gunflint Trail on your way back into Grand Marais. Their rich dishes like beef tostadas with cilantro lime crema, chili cheese fries, and all-you-can-eat fresh Lake Superior herring taste great after a day skating the wild ice. The herring is offered five nights a week.
Poplar Creek Guesthouse is a truly secluded and cozy lodge 30 miles up the Gunflint Trail from Grand Marais. The Guesthouse is run by Ted and Barbara Young, who have been stewards of the adjacent Banadad Ski Trail since its establishment in 1982. Ski out your front door to the Banadad Trail, or hit the whirlpool after a day on skates.
If wild-ice conditions aren’t right for skating, try getting out on your skis instead. The Banadad Trail is a roughly 17-mile cross-country ski trail that winds through the BWCA, right off the Gunflint Trail. One of only two groomed BWCA ski trails, the Banadad offers skiing in a wilderness setting. Here you can also ski yurt-to-yurt and have your gear and food transported to you by Boundary Country Trekking.