What to do when Lake Champlain is Frozen

Words and Photos // Phyl Newbeck

Lots of people flock to Lake Champlain in the summer for swimming, fishing and boating. What those people may not realize is there are a number of activities which are just as much fun when the lake is frozen. There are organized events in Grand Isle, a Pond Hockey tournament in Colchester, and a wide variety of other activities which keep people on the frozen surface all winter long.

A few words of caution need to be inserted here. The Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife warns that any new ice surface less than four inches thick is not considered safe. At four inches, a person can walk or skate on the ice, at five inches they can use a snowmobile or ATV, at eight they can drive a car or small truck on the surface, and when ice is a foot thick, they can take a medium-sized truck out. These figures only hold true for new ice. Refrozen ice is significantly less stable.

ice-boats-starting-line-copySo what are those winter activities?  Well one is almost identical to a summer pastime – ice fishing. Even in winter, fishermen and women can find landlocked salmon, lake trout, northern pike, yellow perch, walleye, and crappie. The only difference is you’ll have to cut a hole in the ice to get your dinner. The Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife suggests wearing layered clothing starting with a moisture-wicking base, an insulated, wind-resistant middle layer, and a breathable outer shell. Insulated boots, hats and gloves are also recommended. Most fishermen wear micro-spikes or other cleats on their boots and carry an auger to cut a hole in the ice and a yardstick to measure the ice thickness.

Another activity which bears at least a passing resemblance to its summer counterpart is ice boating. There are several different kinds of ice boats on the lake, but the most common is the DN boat which is named after a competition sponsored by the Detroit News in 1937. DN boats are twelve feet long, twenty-one inches wide, weigh 100 to 150 pounds, and have a sail area of 60 square feet. The boats have two side runners and one front runner for steering. Racers lean back in their seats with their heads a foot and a half off the ice, travelling up to 60 miles an hour. Lake Champlain has been the site of numerous sanctioned DN races including six North American and/or World Championship regattas.

For some, the best way to experience our Almost Great Lake is on skates. Although regular figure, hockey, and speed skates can be used, skaters who are interested in travelling long distances on the lake tend to use Nordic skates which consist of cross-country ski boots with removable blades. The blades are as long as speed skate blades but thicker and therefore more suitable for variable ice conditions. Because the blades are removable, skaters can switch back and forth between micro spikes (for unskateable ice, often near shore) and blades.

Nordic skaters generally carry poles with sharp tips which allow them to poke the ice surface to gauge the thickness, as well as to provide assistance when crossing pressure cracks or skating into the wind. They also carry “ice claws” around their neck. If a skater falls through the ice, they can pull the sharp tips out of their sheaths and slither their way back onto a solid surface. Because of the potential for these unanticipated swims, many Nordic skaters carry a spare set of clothes in a water-tight bag in their knapsacks and some wear either wet suits or dry suits. The winter of 2013-14 was a great one for Nordic skaters. It was the first time in seven years that the broad section of Lake Champlain (Burlington to New York) froze over, allowing skaters to glide across the seven mile distance which usually has at least some open water.

IMG_0917-copyOf course, not everyone is interested in skating for distance. For some, an old-fashioned game of pond hockey will suffice. The Lake Champlain Pond Hockey Classic, now in its fourth year, will take place from February 13 to 15. Organizer Lou DiMasi said preparations for the event begin as soon as the ice is thick enough to hold people. Volunteers clear the surface whenever there is more than an inch of snow and the ice is flooded for additional thickness. This year, DiMasi is expecting roughly 100 teams with 700 to 750 players and thousands of observers. The action will take place on ten 150 by 75 foot rinks.

The Pond Hockey Classic is co-ed and participants range from those who played youth hockey to former NHL players. Last year, only a third of the teams came from Vermont with others travelling from as far as Colorado, Florida and the Carolinas. Although the weather doesn’t always cooperate, after three years, organizers are prepared for whatever nature throws at them. “Every year there are weather challenges,” admits DiMasi “but we’ve gotten to a point where we feel we can handle most situations and still put on a great event. The tournament is for players 21 and over but there are family friendly events taking place alongside the games. “Whether you’re 21 or 71,” said DiMasi “it brings you back to when you were 12. We’ve done an incredible job of having everyone participating, whether they’re players or family members taking part in the public skating.”

Another annual event is Great Ice in Grand Isle which will take place on two consecutive weekends, February 7/8 and 13/14. Conceived nine years ago as a way to prove that this summer venue can also be fun in winter, the festivities have proven quite popular. Although this year’s schedule has not been set, previous events have included free public skating and pond hockey outside Hero’s Welcome in North Hero, a kids’ fishing derby, dog sled rides, skating races, ice bike racing and the ever-popular Frozen-Chozen Regatta which features a variety of ice-worthy wheeled contraptions. Off ice activities such as a pancake breakfast, Christmas tree bonfire, sweetheart’s dance and chili cook-off have complemented the on-ice events.

Lake Champlain is beautiful in the summer, but there’s plenty to do in winter, as well.  Come on out and enjoy the fun.