Listen: PKG: Wild Ice (Kraker)

MPR’s Dan Kraker travels to Deer Yard Lake in northeastern Minnesota, where cold temperatures have combined with a lack of snow to create ideal conditions for the formation of what some call ‘wild ice’ — black, glassy, smooth ice that can make for miles of epic ice skating on some remote lakes. Kraker meets a die-hard group of skaters that drop everything in search of perfect ice, and the feeling of gliding across the mirror-like surface.


2024 National Headliner Award, first place in Radio Stations Feature or Human Interest Story, All Markets category

2024 National Headliner Award, Best in Show


text | pdf |

SPEAKER: Ice conditions are still unsafe across much of the state. But in Northern Minnesota, the lack of snow and cold temperatures have combined to create ideal conditions for ice skating on some remote lakes. And it offers skaters the chance to glide for miles across the smooth surface. But the season is fleeting, and staying safe is a constant consideration. Dan Kraker met up with three intrepid skaters on the north shore to experience the allure of what some call wild ice.

DAN KRAKER: The sun reflects off the glassy surface of Deer Yard Lake near Lutsen along the north shore. John Oberholtzer attaches a pair of long Nordic blades to his boots specially designed for cross-country skating. But before he ventures out on the ice, he chops at it with an ax to test its thickness. The ice echoes as he chops.

JOHN OBERHOLTZER: It's really thick now.

DAN KRAKER: He finally breaks through to water.

JOHN OBERHOLTZER: That is thick. Whoa.

DAN KRAKER: He estimates six to eight inches. That's plenty to skate on. The Minnesota DNR advises at least four inches. Still early in the season, Oberholtzer says he checks the ice all the time.

JOHN OBERHOLTZER: I literally am constantly checking. And then, once I know if a big expanse that's good, maybe I'll set my ax down and just goof around in there. But otherwise, I'm always checking.

DAN KRAKER: And then, the 57-year-old realtor is off gliding across the ice. The wind whipping tendrils of snow around it. He's joined by Ian Andrus, an organic farmer who lives up the road. A few years ago, Andrus started a Facebook group to share information on ice conditions among skaters. It's now grown to 500-plus members.

IAN ANDRUS: Well, I think it is just like being able to go so fast so easily, and put on so much distance with just a couple of things strapped to your feet.

DAN KRAKER: Andrus says he clocked himself skating 22 miles an hour earlier this week.

IAN ANDRUS: And then also, just the ephemeral nature of it. How it's so fleeting and rare. You have to just get it while it's there. And then, it's gone in one night.

DAN KRAKER: Farther out on the ice, Kjersti Vick stops to check the thickness again. She uses a power drill with a 4-inch long bit.

KJERSTI VICK: Oh, yeah. No water. That's a good solid four inches.

DAN KRAKER: Vick, who promotes tourism to the region with Visit Cook County, says there is always a substantial risk, even if you see other skaters on a lake.

KJERSTI VICK: I usually wear a life jacket. I have my ice picks. I have a throw rope. And I usually have a backpack with me, or at least nearby that has a dry bag in it, in case something happens and I, or somebody else, needs some dry clothing.

DAN KRAKER: Having dry clothing was critical for Oberholtzer a few years ago when he broke through the ice on Brule Lake in the Boundary Waters.

JOHN OBERHOLTZER: And then, I had to do the whole change. It was 10 degrees out. I had to change all my clothes. And I realized by the end of it, I was pretty sapped.

And that was a big lesson. I was by myself. I was fine. It worked out. But since that time, I just don't push it anymore.

DAN KRAKER: That danger is also part of the allure for Oberholtzer, who learned to skate at outdoor rinks in suburban Chicago.

JOHN OBERHOLTZER: A lot of people think it's crazy. And I don't want to do things that are foolhardy and that's dangerous. But it is make your own adventure, and you be super mindful of yourself and make it happen. You're not being guided on this thing. And I think it's fun to be doing something that other people think is completely dangerous.

DAN KRAKER: Vick says she loves to listen to the ice.

KJERSTI VICK: It both makes your heart race a little bit because sometimes, you'll have a big boom right underneath you. But it also is just really exciting. And just-- it's magical to just listen to the lake sing to you.

DAN KRAKER: Later, I wait quietly for several minutes waiting for the ice to speak. I ask Andrus and Oberholtzer what it sounds like to them.

IAN ANDRUS: I don't know. Maybe whales.

JOHN OBERHOLTZER: It's like some deeper old water language. Seriously.

DAN KRAKER: As we skate back to shore, they're already scheming about their next skate. They plan to find as much wild ice as they can before the snow inevitably comes. Dan Kraker. NPR News, Lutsen.


This Story Appears in the Following Collections

Views and opinions expressed in the content do not represent the opinions of APMG. APMG is not responsible for objectionable content and language represented on the site. Please use the "Contact Us" button if you'd like to report a piece of content. Thank you.

Transcriptions provided are machine generated, and while APMG makes the best effort for accuracy, mistakes will happen. Please excuse these errors and use the "Contact Us" button if you'd like to report an error. Thank you.

< path d="M23.5-64c0 0.1 0 0.1 0 0.2 -0.1 0.1-0.1 0.1-0.2 0.1 -0.1 0.1-0.1 0.3-0.1 0.4 -0.2 0.1 0 0.2 0 0.3 0 0 0 0.1 0 0.2 0 0.1 0 0.3 0.1 0.4 0.1 0.2 0.3 0.4 0.4 0.5 0.2 0.1 0.4 0.6 0.6 0.6 0.2 0 0.4-0.1 0.5-0.1 0.2 0 0.4 0 0.6-0.1 0.2-0.1 0.1-0.3 0.3-0.5 0.1-0.1 0.3 0 0.4-0.1 0.2-0.1 0.3-0.3 0.4-0.5 0-0.1 0-0.1 0-0.2 0-0.1 0.1-0.2 0.1-0.3 0-0.1-0.1-0.1-0.1-0.2 0-0.1 0-0.2 0-0.3 0-0.2 0-0.4-0.1-0.5 -0.4-0.7-1.2-0.9-2-0.8 -0.2 0-0.3 0.1-0.4 0.2 -0.2 0.1-0.1 0.2-0.3 0.2 -0.1 0-0.2 0.1-0.2 0.2C23.5-64 23.5-64.1 23.5-64 23.5-64 23.5-64 23.5-64"/>