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Chasing Mirror-Smooth Frozen Lakes With a Fat Bike

With the lack of snow this winter, conditions were looking perfect for fat biking on mirror-smooth frozen lakes near Cable, WI. Here Dave Schlabowske shares his story of ice, fat biking, and almost perfect timing.

Words by Dave Schlabwske

What a difference a year and El Niño make. Last year I had venison backstraps for Thanksgiving, we had 22″ of snow on the ground, were still trying to chainsaw open trails to groom after two ice storms bent trees over, and people had been skiing on the Birkie trails since mid-October. This year, there is still green grass visible, the deer are bedded down feasting on a mast year for acorns, we had turkey for Thanksgiving, and it is raining on the Gitchi Gami Games, where they will be skiing on 5K of man-made slush on the Tormondsen Family Snowmaking Trails by the Birkie start area and Telemark Mountain.

When nature, with human help (re: climate change) gives you lemons, you try to make lemonade. Hence I have been riding gravel roads, the CAMBA mountain bike trails when they are frozen, bikerafting and riding my fat bike on barely frozen lakes. I also went back down to Milwaukee for the Annual Santa Cycle Rampage, a little pub crawl I started with a handful of friends 22 years ago that has grown into a parade-style, police-led bike ride with thousands of people dressed for the holidays that has inspired spin-off rampages in cities around the country.

The Santa Cycle Rampage was fun and it was great to see a thousand old friends, listen to polka at Kochanski’s Concertina Beer Hall (one of my forever happy places) and drink a shot of Malört. I almost didn’t go down for the Rampage because I have been watching for those rare winter conditions when the lakes freeze mirror smooth without any snow and you can ride with studded tires while watching the Crappies and Sunfish swim below your studded tires on two inches of crystal clear ice.

But then we got a dusting of snow, which covered most but not all lakes. The bigger bodies of water like Lake Owen and Lake Namekagon had enough wind or open water to stay snow-free. So I was still watching for wild ice, but the forecast predicted daytime temps in the mid-forties before the Rampage weekend, so I headed south. And then it happened, the south end of Lake Owen froze into smooth black ice while I was dressed as a Santa in the 414! The family that owns Lake Owen Resort made this great drone video of them skating on perfect conditions and shared it on Facebook.

I saw the video of those rare, ephemeral, perfect wild ice conditions and kicked myself for leaving the Northwoods. Then I checked the weather report and saw there was no snow forecast in the near future and the temps would stay cold. So I planned on riding Lake Owen on Monday after I got back to Seeley to make a similar drone video with my new DJI Mini 4 Pro.

Lake Owen only has a couple of public boat landing and access points and they are all on the far north end. So late Monday afternoon I headed up to get on the Lake at Two Lakes Campground. I went under the gate of the campground and rode down to the little beach to check out the ice. It was perfectly clear and smooth, but only about an inch thick at the shore. Sometimes ice is thicker further away from shore, and with my weight spread out over two 5″ 45Nrth Dillinger tires, I knew that the ice would probably hold me so I cautiously pedaled away from terra firma.

You can hear the coincidence frequency of the ice cracking a bit underneath me as I ride. I was watching below me and never went too far from shore because the ice was so thin that if I fell through, I wanted to be in relatively shallow water. After a couple of sketchy passes from the beach to the next lakeside campground, I decided to head down to the south end of the lake where the resort family filmed their video and claimed the ice was three to four inches thick.

Friends who live nearby on Perry Lake (snow-covered at this time) said they have never had a problem accessing Lake Owen from Metros Landing, even though it is posted as a private landing for people who live around the south end of the lake. So I rode down onto the lake there, just as it was getting dark. The ice was still mirror smooth like in the resort video, but it was now pretty dark outside, and I could not see below the ice and my Insta360 camera was unable to capture good video in the very low light. So I rode around for a few minutes and decided to head home and come back early Tuesday morning with my new drone for sunrise.

Of course, nature had other plans, and it started snowing big fluffy flakes overnight and those perfect conditions vanished just like that! Covering the mirror smooth ice with an inch of white powder meant I could not make a fat tire version of the cool ice skating video the resort family made. It also meant I could no longer see the ice I was riding on, so I had no idea how thick it was, which increased the risk of falling in. Although I have been riding with an inflatable PFD and my ice picks, the snow images were not as cool as mirror-smooth black ice, so the risk vs reward scale now tipped much more toward risk.

When I got to Mineral Lake, I was pleased to find the ice 3-4 inches thick and mostly free of snow. It was not that rare mirror-clear ice that reflects the sky and horizon that Lake Owen had for a few days, but it was still very pretty to ride around on with the sun setting so I made a practice video with my new drone and edited in Frozen Lake, a song my brother Dean wrote and recorded with his old band TV White. The band was named after the off-white color of his vintage guitar, used so guitars would not blow out the video of old television studio cameras from the 60s and 70s.

I’m still getting the hang of the drone, and I don’t yet have video editing software that allows me to do quality color corrections of d-log, so I was not able to take full advantage of the new DJI Mini 4 Pro, but I’m pleased with how the video turned out. And I had a lot of fun riding around on a very pretty lake with winter temperatures in the lower 40s. I’ll take another glass of that lemonade, please.

Bonus: Bikerafting the Namekogon in December




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