No snow? Why not try ice skating in the high country?

Friday, Dec. 15, 2017 4:59 PM

As I write this in Durango on Dec. 14, it is so dry that the light breeze blows dust along the blue sky. The extended weather forecast does not call for any precipitation.

Where are the winter sports? Have you considered ice skating on high-country lakes? Rarely have the conditions been so prime. With no snow and frigid nighttime temperatures, mountain lakes are freezing up.

But before you head out, here are a few things to consider. The back country is unpredictable any time. There are freak storms, cold temperatures and myriad opportunities for human error. Heed this advice, and hopefully, you won’t find yourself on thin ice!

How do you know if the ice is thin? First, avoid the inlets and outlets. Ice will be thinnest near flowing water. But how do you know how thick it is? Sure, you could huck big rocks. But there are some more scientific ways. To educate myself about some of these, I consulted those who know best – Wisconsinites, North Dakotans and Minnesotans.

According to the website in Wisconsin, the answer is about as clear as a frozen lake. “There really is ... no such thing as 100 percent safe ice. You cannot judge the strength of ice by one factor like its appearance, age, thickness, temperature or whether the ice is covered with snow. Ice strength is based on a combination of several factors, and they can vary from water body to water body.”

Minnesotans are a little more straightforward about it. The site recommends that no one walk on ice less than 4 inches thick. To test this, you could invest in a lot of heavy, ice-specific tools or you can just bring a cordless drill and a tape measure. “Using a cordless drill and a long, five-eighths-inch wood auger bit, you can drill through eight inches of ice in less than 30 seconds ... After drilling a hole, measure ice thickness with a measure tape.” They recommend taking measurements every 150 feet. Of course, you have to go out onto the ice to take these measurements, so be careful.

If you fall through the ice, North Dakotans at recommend: 1) Remain calm. 2) Move toward the direction from which you came. 3) Kick your feet like you are swimming and use ice picks (if available) to pull yourself onto the ice. 4) If someone nearby has a rope, they can help you. 5) Once back on the ice, remain on your stomach (this distributes your weight across a larger area) and slither back to shore.

So, where should you go skating? The higher the better, as the higher lakes will have been exposed to colder temperatures and the ice will be thicker and safer. As long as there is not much snow, the road to Andrew’s Lake is still open. That would be the easiest place to reach. If you are seeking more solitude, consider hiking or biking to the following lakes. Distances are approximate and one-way:

Little Molas Lake: ½ mile Spud Lake: 1 mileSilver Lake: 2 milesIce Lakes: 3.8 milesClear Lake: 4 milesCrater Lake: 5.5 milesCheck the weather, tell someone where you are going and bring more warm clothes than you think you will need. Hand and toe warmers are also handy, as well as thermoses of hot beverages.

Get directions and maps from the San Juan National Forest. Call these offices: Durango, 247-4874; Bayfield, 884-2512; Dolores, 882-7296; Pagosa Springs, 264-2268; or visit

And don’t forget your camera (#highcountryiceskating)!

MK Gunn is assistant for education, volunteer programs and visitor information services for San Juan Mountains Association.