DETROIT LAKES -- For many, Minnesota winter means going walking or driving out onto the ice for recreational purposes.

While it might seem safe to be out on the ice, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MnDNR) says that “ice is never 100% safe!”

“I have about five words for ice conditions,” said Gary Thompson, the owner of Tri-State Diving, who recovers everything in the water from a 95,000-pound excavator to wedding rings.

Thompson's words:

  • Clear ice: the first ice that is made at the beginning of the season and is formed on top of all year.

  • Milk ice: when snow and water mix on the ice and refreeze.

  • Honeycomb ice: when water starts percolating down into the ice and is not safe. “I’ve been diving underneath that,” Thompson said, ”and you can see the bubbles.”

  • Black ice: when the ice is ready to go making it not safe to walk on.

  • Oh, no ice: when the ice breaks underneath the weight of a person or vehicle.

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There have been reports of several vehicles going into lake water around the area this winter, as the ice has not been as strong because of recent snows. Tri-State pulled a Chevy Silverado out of Otter Tail Lake on Jan. 4.

A 2016 Chevrolet Silverado truck was pulled from Otter Tail Lake Saturday, Jan. 4, by Tri-State Diving. The vehicle went into the water on Jan. 1. Tri-State has pulled several vehicles and implements from area lakes this winter. (Courtesy photo)
A 2016 Chevrolet Silverado truck was pulled from Otter Tail Lake Saturday, Jan. 4, by Tri-State Diving. The vehicle went into the water on Jan. 1. Tri-State has pulled several vehicles and implements from area lakes this winter. (Courtesy photo)

Driving on the ice is risky, especially if vehicles are following one another. “I’ve had people three in a line,” Thompson said, "and the third one drops through.”

When a vehicle does go through the ice a dive team such as Tri-State Diving recovers the vehicle; if someone is trapped in the vehicle it is the county dive team is the one doing the rescue.

For vehicle recovery, the team goes out onto the ice and will set up next to the vehicle if the ice is safe. If it is not safe, they will set up elsewhere, cut the ice, and pull the vehicle to them before bringing it up.

The goal is to recover the vehicle as soon as conditions are safe. “I will not go out on the ice if it’s not safe,” Thompson said, and “we do not work in the dark.”

The cost of recovery depends on what went through the ice and how long it takes to recover, anywhere from two to 10 hours. The bigger the vehicle, the longer it takes to get out, and the farther down a diver has to been sent means the higher the cost.

Insurance usually covers recovery; full coverage insurance covers the recovery and damage to the vehicle, and liability only covering recovery only. For driving on the lake full coverage insurance is recommended. “Everyone I’ve done this year has been insurance,” Thompson said.” If you don’t have any insurance at all then you’re in trouble.”

A Tri-State diver comes up from installing a receiver hitch on a Geo Tracker in Pelican Bay Lake Dec. 15. Submitted photo
A Tri-State diver comes up from installing a receiver hitch on a Geo Tracker in Pelican Bay Lake Dec. 15. Submitted photo

People need to do their homework and check before going out, then exercising caution once they are out on the ice. Walk with an ice chisel checking the ice ever little bit, if it goes through it is not safe to keep going. When driving the ice needs to be checked every 75 feet, Thompson said.

Safety has more to do with how strong the ice is, rather than how thick it is.

"You could have 12 inches of ice and it’s not as strong as 4 inches of ice," Thompson said.

Minnesota DNR ice safety tips

  • Children should stay off ice unless with a parent who checks the ice.

  • Ask local bait shops about ice conditions and hazards.

  • Ice seldom freezes uniformly and weaken as it thaws; check at regular intervals.

  • Avoid alcohol. It affects decision-making.

  • Carry ice picks or large mails in case you breakthrough.

  • Avoid pressure ridges and areas with currents (such as channels).

  • Use caution driving on ice. Roll a window down and unlock doors.

  • If you break through, get out fast!

What makes weak ice?

Ice can be weakened by a number of things, said Gary Thompson, the owner of Tri-State Diving:

  • Moving water under the ice

  • Air pocket in the ice

  • Beavers working

  • Fish under the ice

  • Driving too much or too fast across the ice

  • Cracks in the ice

  • Heavy snow on the ice

  • Being to close to shore or cattails