Wheels on ice: Ice roads get us from A to B, with all due respect and a bit of fun


Cars and kids on the ice

Cars and kids on the ice

Cars go through the ice every year, and every year I pray that ours is not one of them. When we hear about those cars we shake our heads, as any fool could see the ice was thin. But the owners of those cars must have been confident and absolutely sure it was safe.

When I tell people we drive on the ice, they generally ask why. One reason is the same for driving anywhere, to get someplace. Ice roads are the best way to haul loads in many parts of Canada, and it’s the best way for us, too. The access to our family camp is blocked by a huge mound of snow from the plow, and it is far easier to drive onto the ice and right to the door of the cabin instead of hauling supplies over the snow hump and down what is essentially a frozen waterfall.

Another reason for taking a car out is to bring a friend who is no longer as fit as he once was, but still has the fishing-bug and has no other way to get in the middle of that wide open space.

These are practical reasons for driving on ice. The other reason for driving on ice is the sheer wonder of having two-tons of metal out in the middle of a pond, knowing there is twenty feet of water not far below the frozen surface. There are no roads to follow, stop signs or intersections, and no trees or guard rails to bump into. It is very liberating.

A weekend on the ice with  blue skies and sun, and clouds and gusting snow.

A weekend on the ice with blue skies and sun, and clouds and gusting snow.

We were ice fishing, and so could see there was eighteen inches of ice. That is a lot of ice, and even though we know there is no such thing as absolutely safe ice, it doesn’t get much safer than that.

We had friends visiting this weekend, and when the afternoon breezes kicked up and were sending icy pellets into our faces they thought their cars could create a windblock. That was the reason they gave, but the high spirited dash to drive out, and the sassy little tail waggles of the Rover as one driver headed to the tip-ups were more fun than practical.

Their cars were white, the ice white, and the billows of snow blowing by were white. The sky had become overcast, and the entire scene was stripped of color. It was a monochromatic white-on-white interrupted only by few staccato dots of bright orange from the tiny square flags that are the tell-tales on a ice-fishing trap, or tip-up.

The fishing was slow, so the kids quit to go sliding down the icy waterfall, which was now an asset instead of a liability. The adults swapped stories in the lee of the cars, and watched the snow gusting across the pond and a lone eagle circling above. The sun was setting, time to get off the ice. We hopped a car and aimed at camp, the tip-ups stretched out in a straight line ahead of us.  We all thought at the same time, slalom, and sure enough we began weaving in and out around the flags, pulling up with a hockey stop in front of camp. We piled out giggling like kids, and I looked at the ice we drove on, the ice we crawled over, the ice the kids are playing on. It’s just frozen water, but so varied and complex.

My husband knows how to read the ice. He understands compression forces, pressure ridges, and knows to avoid folded ice and other patches with surface marks that indicate things might not be safe.

He tells of fishing with several friends on two inches of ice. “We couldn’t stand close to each other,” he said. That does not sound safe to me, but a Vermont resource states a the breakthrough point is180 pounds for 1.1” thick black ice, or about 150 pounds per square inch. My husband explains that he and his friends were on new ice, solid and pliant. He compares it to a twig. An old dried twig will snap easily between your fingers. A fresh green branch will bend. Old ice, or ice with a snow cover, has a whole different set of rules.

We are off the ice now, but I am pretty sure before winter is over we will hear of a car or snowmobile breaking through. Sure hope it isn’t ours. Or yours. Be safe.

Snow cover on the ice.

Snow cover on the ice.

For more on the thermal and mechanical properties of natural ice covers: Lakeice.squarespace.com


Some guidelines from the Minnesota DNR

There is no such thing as completely safe ice.

2” Stay off

4” Ice skating and fishing

5” Snowmobile or ATV

8-12” Car or small pick-up

12-15” Medium truck.



Karen O. Zimmermann

About Karen O. Zimmermann

Karen O. Zimmermann savors chance encounters with people throughout the state of Maine, and is endlessly delighted with the tales they have to share.