Locals riding on thin ice
Warmer than normal temperatures have created a perfect storm for ice-related accidents on area lakes.
Just ask local Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Conservation Officer Chris Vinton, who happens to be the first line of contact for those who have lost a fish house, All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) or vehicle to broken ice.
"It's been a really bad ice making season," he said.
As of Feb. 16, Vinton had been called on for around 50 fallen fish houses, a couple of four-wheelers and a few full-size vehicles -- and those are just the incidents that have been reported.
"With the warmer temperatures, ice right now isn't as thick as it typically would be," he said.
That makes his job a bit more hectic this year.
While it's not required to report a fallen fish house, Vinton said most area anglers make the courtesy call. He said anglers have until the first Monday of March - March 5 - to remove structures from the ice, including those that have gone in.
What is required throughout the season, though, is the proper attachment of permits to the outside of fish houses. Such permits include name of owner, address and driver's license or DNR number.
Vinton said that doesn't always happen - and it should, to make his job run smoothly.
"A lot of guys are forgetting to mark their house," he said. "The reason we require that marking is so I can track down the owner of the house."
For vehicles that have fallen in the water, it is the responsibility of the driver to contact local enforcement, which could be the police station, sheriff's office or DNR officer, within 24 hours of the incident.
Vinton said drivers shouldn't be afraid to report fallen vehicles because of concerns over fines - because there is no initial fine. In the Perham area, drivers have 30 days to remove a vehicle that has gone through the ice. In the case of unfavorable conditions, the sheriff could even extend that timeline.
The only way someone would receive a fine is if they failed to report the incident. Even then, the ticket would be similar to a standard traffic citation.
"There's no penalty - it's basically written like a traffic accident for failing to remove or failing to notify," he said. "I hear rumors that the DNR will fine $10,000. That's absolutely not true."
Vinton said incidents this year have been frequent, most likely due to thin ice. In most years, Vinton said frozen ice depth is roughly 30 to 36 inches. This year, the average is 20 inches. That's caused issues in areas where springs pop up. In a normal year, a spring wouldn't have the power to melt through 35 inches of ice - but this year it's been enough to compromise the 20-inch ice structure.
While the ice is thinner this year, Vinton said there's risk every time someone steps out on the ice, regardless.
"I give the same exact advice this year as I give other years," he said. "Ice is never safe. Be prepared when you drive out, walk out or take the four-wheeler out that you're going to fall in, because you are going to have to save yourself."
Vinton said it could be wise to prepare in a vehicle by taking the seatbelt off, rolling down the window and actively thinking about what it's going to take to get out, in the case the vehicle goes under.
After an angler does go under, and makes it out alive, it's time to worry about getting the vehicle out.
That's where Gary Thompson comes in.
Thompson owns Tri-State Diving in Detroit Lakes, and is no stranger to the ice scene in Otter Tail County.
Having invented a machine that can handle the rescue of pretty much any structure lost in the water, Thompson regularly gets called on by anglers in trouble.
This year, Thompson has helped retrieve five vehicles, two ATVs and six fish houses from the area.
"Every job is a little different," he said. "But with our machine, no matter what goes in, we can get it."
This year, Thompson hasn't responded to scenes of missing anglers - a good thing for his crew. But, he said, it does happen.
In an interview Feb. 16, he said a day prior he was at the scene of an incident on Buchanan Lake, where two men had escaped a mini van after it hit an ice ridge. According to reports received by Thompson, one motorist got out to swim, while the other couldn't get the doors open, prompting the passenger to smash through the window. In that case, the van landed on its side, making it tougher for Thompson to retrieve the vehicle, but he did.
As someone who tends to be a responder to some of the most insane of ice-related incidents, Thompson said he's learned one golden rule when it comes to venturing out on frozen lakes: "You're taking a chance every time you go on them."