Winter Explorations and Ice Safety

Ice boaters on Lake Champlain. Photo by Andy Sajor.

In winter, nobody needs a boat to go fishing, as long as the lake freezes over. Lake Champlain attracts ice fishermen from far and near. When the winter winds blow, ice-boating enthusiasts can be found gliding over the lake. Other winter activities on the frozen lake include skating, skiing, snowshoeing, biking, and kite skiing. Kite skiers use a 9-meter kite, on skis or snowboard to zip around and fly!

Here, Andy Sajor’s recounts his story of winter biking:

“February, 2014. It was another beautiful cold crisp February day on Lake Champlain.  It has been a few years since the lake had frozen so thoroughly and with the lack of snow, it was perfect for skating, ice boating, and yes, bicycling.

When I was a kid, we would take old bike tires and drive furniture tacks from the inside out and then put that over the mounted tire. It made riding on ice possible, but not very efficient. Today there are several companies that manufacture bicycle tires with carbide studs embedded in them.  My favorite being the Hakkapeliitta 240, which has 240 studs per tire. If you are interested in learning more click on the link and there is a good discussion about ice tires.

With a studded tire, riding on ice is pretty safe. It does take a little getting used to, and you will need to play with tire pressure until you find your comfort zone but once found, grab your helmet, wrist guards and of course rescue spikes and you are ready to go. I would not recommend venturing out on the ice by yourself, like any activity on ice, the inherent dangers of not knowing the quality of the ice you are traversing can lead to calamity. Always use the buddy system, carry a communication device, rescue bag, and dry coverall. I will write more about the rescue bag at the end of the story.

Anyway, as I said it was another stellar day on the lake, light south wind, plenty of sunshine and temperatures in the teens. I headed out from Cliff Haven beach toward Crab Island and was immediately struck by the beautiful patterns in the “black” ice.

When ice forms, it actually expands and will create fissures in surrounding ice. Often, if it is quiet out on the ice you can hear the ice sing as large cracks erupt in a plate. You do not hear the smaller cracks but their evidence can be seen everywhere. Also the gas bubbles that rise up from the sediments in the lake bottom often get locked into the ice forming beautiful patterns. Listen to the sound of ice below:



Often you can spot large crystal growth on top of a plate looking like a large snowflake.

Or you can find this “curtaining” effect from the gas being trapped during the freezing process.

Or just a modern art geometric pattern.

Anyway, being delayed from my original mission of looking at the fossil beds on Valcour, long enough, I hopped back on my bike and headed Southeast the mile and a half to the North end of Valcour. The first obstacle was a pressure ridge that formed between Crab Island and Valcour. These are common when expanding ice plates bump into each other and find the weakest point to rupture and push up. You have to be careful around these because often times water will flow on top of the submerged plate and skim over with ice. You can fall through, or if the angle is steep enough, fall backward and hit your head. Carrying the bike over, I continued on towards Valcour.

Ice ridge between Crab and Valcour.

The south wind on the lake can whip up big waves, and before it froze over, the spray from the waves hitting the shore made these ice sculptures.

Ice sculpture on East side of Valcour

Ice “Sphinx” near campsite on Valcour.

As I moved along, I had the feeling of being watched from the island. I stopped several times but could not see anything. However, I did notice something large in the ice a couple of hundred meters ahead so I rode out to it to discover the backbone of a deer. The “coy dogs” or wild dogs that live on the island will chase the deer onto the ice where they cannot turn or out maneuver them. It is the way of nature out here. A little further on, there was a fresher kill, the image of which is much too graphic to include.  There, I did catch a glimpse of my island stalker, but the animal was much too quick to allow me to photograph it.

Continuing on, I made my way up to shore being careful to observe the ice for thin spots which often happen where the sun can warm the shallows when the ice is clear.

In the winter, the lake level is generally lower than in summer and the fossil beds along the exposed bedrock are easy to inspect. The outcrops sport many fossils, the most prominent of which are the Maclurites magnus. These animals lived here over 400 million years ago, when the area that is now Lake Champlain Basin was part of a shallow tropical sea. The fossils were formed when shells, other hard parts of plants and animals or traces of other organisms, such as worm borings or animal tracks, were buried in limey mud. Over time, this mud cemented into limestone. Who know, maybe in the future, some being will find the fossilized remains of the deer carcass I found on the ice.

 Since it was a nice day and the wind did not pick up, I continued around the island and stopped to take a picture of the lighthouse on the west side.  The total trip is about 8 miles, and since its flat, the pedaling is easy. The bonus was that on the way home, the south wind picked up and I hardly had to peddle!”


On the ice, each person should carry a set of ice picks, whistle, throw bag, and a communication device. If you are the one who goes in and you are carrying the gear, it will not do much good to help your buddies rescue you! The ice pick will help you climb out if your muscles are still working. But your buddies will need a line to throw you. I also carry an ice screw to use as an anchor so if I am pulling someone out, I won’t slide in.  I also carry an old one piece foul weather gear so that if you get wet you have something to get into that is dry and wind proof. Hypothermia is a real concern on the ice and never should be taken lightly, towards that end I will often wear a thin life jacket under my outer wear. Today’s new wind stopping fleece is so effective and not too bulky, that you can afford to wear a life jacket under it which adds dead air space and warmth while providing an extra measure of safety.  Also, good quality ice creepers should be worn. You don’t have to go to the level of crampons, but something more rigorous than the spring type or the slip-on with the carbide tips. You want to be wearing something that will dig in hard and not slip off. Remember, the creepers are not just for walking around; they may be called into action to help rescue someone. Finally, like any other excursion, tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return!