Ice road offers a river shortcut
It is that time of year when dozens of people enjoy a shortcut between North Hudson and Bayport, Minn.
A stretch of the St. Croix River freezes over and the ice road between the two points cuts miles and time off of the commute for workers, shoppers and visitors.
Up until his retirement from Andersen Corp., Dave "Swanee" Swanson was the unofficial keeper of the ice road, plowing it to and from work five days a week. That was 10 years ago, but he still pitches in to clear the snow and smooth it out.
"It cuts the time down. It's a shortcut to the bank, lower gas prices or to get to work and shopping," said Swanee on Monday morning. The road, six-tenths of a mile long, is wider than two lanes so that traffic can pass in each direction or drivers can stop and visit.
"It is a little rough this year because of the rain," said Swanee, who together with others such as Jason Yonash, drop a plow blade whenever they cross to keep the road open. The edges of the road are marked by the ridges of snow created by the plows. Another marker to look for is the large white signs on either end that advise boaters of the underground gas line.
"One time a woman wandered off the road, ending up near some ice fishing shacks," said Swanee. "If she had gone much further she would have reached the Mallalieu dam and driven in the water."
The road heads north at an angle from Ferry Landing (or the Galahad Extension) on the North Hudson side of the St. Croix River to Bayport on the Minnesota side. The water is open to the north in Stillwater and to the south in Hudson, but it freezes all the way across along the path of the ice road if the weather cooperates with multiple below-zero days.
"It is kind of a guesstimate as to when it is safe. I try to check with the fishermen to see if there is enough ice. The river changes so you always have to be cautious," said Swanee, who admits that he normally doesn't buckle up when driving across the ice road.
A visit to the edge of the ice on Monday afternoon found cars, trucks and an SUV not only crossing on the ice road but also driving along both shores to an assortment of ice fishing houses. When vehicles arrive on the Minnesota side, drivers have to maneuver around the rocks that dot the shore.
"It makes you a bit nervous when there is water on top of the ice," said Swanee.
Although changing weather conditions can shorten or lengthen the life of the ice road, people have been driving across it for many decades.
According to the Minnesota DNR Web site, there is no sure answer to the question of when the ice is safe. Drivers can't judge the strength of ice just by its appearance, age, thickness, temperature, or whether or not the ice is covered with snow.
Strength is based on all these factors, plus the depth of water under the ice, the size of the water body, water chemistry and currents, the distribution of the load on the ice, and local climatic conditions - there is no such thing as 100 percent safe ice.
The following are guidelines for new, clear ice only:
The Minnesota DNR asks people to refrain from driving on ice whenever possible. If they must drive a vehicle, they should be prepared to leave it in a hurry -- keep windows down, unbuckle seat belts and have a simple emergency plan of action that passengers understand.
Despite the warning, a large assortment of people from both sides of the river currently use the ice road.
For more information about traveling on ice, visit www.dnr.state.mn.us/safety/ice/travel.html.