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Do You Remember Your First Time Walking On A Frozen Lake?

Lindsey Moon
In November, IPR Producer Matt Alvarez asked for your help surviving and thriving through his first Iowa winter. "River to River" host Ben Kieffer took him out onto a frozen Lake MacBride with an Iowa DNR officer.

Dear Experienced Iowans, 

When I told friends and family back in Texas that I would be walking onto a frozen lake, they all had the same question: “ A lake... is that safe?” Those comments where quickly followed by: “It was nice knowing ya.” 

The idea of walking on a frozen lake even had my colleague Rick Brewer shouting “no way” in the newsroom. But Ben Kieffer, my winter coach, convinced me this adventure was a quintessential experience in my quest to embrace my first Iowa winter.

Ben lined up an opportunity for us to meet with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Nick Rocca, who is a park ranger. I was confident he would not lead us astray.    

We met Nick at Angler’s Point at Lake MacBride last week. As we drove up to our meet spot, we saw many ice fishermen chilling on the lake with their fishing poles. Seeing so many of them boosted my confidence that ice was indeed thick enough to walk on.

Thanks to your helpful advice, dear IPR fan, I was also well prepared with a heavy coat, mittens, and a set of yak tracks.

Aside from an artificial ice rink at the center of a four story mall, seeing a natural body of water completely frozen was a sight I have not seen before. Do you remember your first time walking on a frozen lake or pond?  

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Since you’re an experienced Iowan, you might have been too young to remember and might even take the sight for granted at this point. But as an adult who had not experienced something like this before, I will take the memory of this excursion with me for the rest of my life.  

As I stepped on the ice and looked at Nick and Ben several feet in front of me, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was too much weight for the ice. Then I heard the pop.

You know that specific sound ice makes when you walk on it? That was horrifying.

Credit Ben Kieffer / IPR
There were several ice fisherman out on Lake MacBride. The ice was indeed 6-8 inches thick.

I was encouraged to walk even further out onto the ice, reassured it was safe and that there was anywhere from six to eight inches of ice under my feet.

On our stroll across Lake McBride, I got a rundown from Nick about how to find happiness on a frozen lake, and avoid potentially life threatening hazards:

Never assume any ice is safe ice.

  •  If you have the means to drill to check the depth of the ice, you can do so with an auger. Other than that, some quick research with the Iowa DNR’s website should tell you what you need to know.

Cracking and popping noises are normal. 

  • But if you do feel a shift, or fear you’re in danger, quickly distribute your weight, lay on the ground and crawl off the ice. 

Carry backup safety gear. 

  • Ice picks, rope, or a floating seat cushion can help you out when time isn’t on your side. 

Always tell someone when you’re going on the ice. 

  • I told lots of people. Clearly.... 

Frozen lakes are not just for ice fishing. 

  • If you’re not big on fishing you can certainly fill an afternoon with snowmobiling or ice skating on real ice.     

As I walked off the ice, a sense of accomplishment washed over me. Next time, I don’t think I’ll be so freaked out. Nick gave some really good advice, and all winter I’ve had the good fortune of having a bunch of people helping me adjust to Iowa. 
I want to make it back out onto the lake to ice skate, but in the event a spring thaw happens first, it is good to know that Iowa’s state parks never close. There will be lots more adventure in store when the snow melts.  

Warm thoughts,
Matt Alvarez

Matthew was a producer for IPR's River to River and Talk of Iowa
Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River
Rick Brewer was a producer for IPR's Talk of Iowa and River to River
Lindsey Moon is IPR's Senior Digital Producer