January 2017

 In the north there's a tradition of using natural ice that goes back centuries. Cutting ice for refrigeration was given the ax by electricity, although it lives on in historical reenactments. But most every other use of ice is still practiced. Ice has great potential for pond recreation, especially skating and fishing. Ice can also cause trouble. Here are some thoughts on using and taking care of that coolest of pond resources: ice.

Recreation Safety

The first rule for recreation on ice is safe thickness. Here are suggestions from the Minnesota DNR: 4" for ice fishing or activities on foot, 5" for snowmobiles or ATVs, 8-12" for car or small pickup, and 12-15" for a medium pickup truck. Use a hatchet or ice auger to make a small hole, and tape for measuring. Remember that thickness varies with location and changes in the weather. If you're putting a fishing shanty on the ice, you should check with your state DNR for weight and thickness criteria. Stay away from areas where streams and flow pipes enter and outflow, where the ice will be thinner. The same goes for areas near aerators in operation.

When you go out on the ice, do it with one or more friends. The hope is that if somebody falls through, someone else won't, and will be able to help. Here's some advice on ice safety from the new edition of the Earth Ponds Sourcebook.

"In case of a breakthrough, one of the best rescue devices is a light ladder with a strong line attached to one end. The ladder can be shoved out to the person in the water, then hauled in. The ladder helps distribute weight over a large area... For self-rescue, iceboaters and others who may be alone on the ice often carry a pair of awls to help pull themselves out. At the very least, a skater ought to carry a knife for the same purpose. Anyone driving a car or truck on ice should make sure the door opens easily and should keep a window open."

A rope you can throw to the victim also seems like a good idea, but be careful not to get near the bad ice. Ice claws are also available to buy, or make. Here's a good site for more info. They also offer excellent information on other aspects of pond ice; check their sections on pond safety and small ponds.

Depending where you live, a pond frozen or liquid might be considered an "attractive nuisance" making you liable for injuries to strangers, etc. Check with your insurance agent regarding liability. Some folks put up warning signs, or even fence off the pond. In my rural Vermont town there are scores of ponds, without signs or fences (except perhaps for livestock). Depends on your town or state, I suppose.

Photos on this page Courtesy of Vermont Historical Society

Recreational How-To: Clearing for Skating

Once you have safe smooth ice, keep it. Clearing snow can be done by shoveling or scraping manually or with a snow blower (self contained or on a tractor, etc.). Or a tractor or truck with plow. Shoveling can be a family or neighborhood affair, sweetened by a bonfire and hot chocolate, or simply the reward of a newly cleared pond. Clearing after every snow is a good idea, otherwise the surface has a chance of freezing rough. It's helpful to resurface the ice occasionally to smooth out cracks and roughness, using a pump or other water source to spray a freshly cleared surface. This is best done during very cold weather when the water will freeze quickly. Over the years, in my Vermont neighborhood, there have been several ponds maintained by dedicated groups of skaters. Skating ponds come and go depending on the enthusiasm of the skater-shovelers.

How Big?

Rink size can vary depending on use. For hockey you'll need space, as much as 200 x 85 for NHL size, but good games can be played on smaller rinks, and in fact, team and rink size often vary depending on the pond and who shows up. For figure skating, you may not need much space at all. For curling, 138' x 14'.

Ice Fishing

Ice fishing can be done with as little equipment as an auger (manual or powered), or ice chisel, some fishing tackle and bait, and a chair. For the swanky set, a shanty with stove for heat and cooking.

No Pond? Flood a Field

You don't even need a pond to make a skating rink. A flat lawn, field, or even parking lot, can be flooded to the size you require. Often these start off with a plastic liner built up 6" or so at the perimeter, to contain water. The raised edges can also help keep hockey pucks inside the rink. Sometimes boards are used to create even more substantial sides. A flooded field rink is a popular choice for parents with young kids, or anybody worried about falling through pond ice. A field rink is drown proof. The new edition of the Earth Ponds Sourcebook has a section on creating both pond and flooded field rinks.

Ponds and Ice Problems

There are a few key places to watch your pond for icing problems. Overflow pipes can freeze up and cause various kinds of trouble. A culvert type overflow pipe at pond waterlevel can freeze and block the pond spillway. This can lead to flooding, water overtopping the dam, and erosion around the exterior of the pipe. This can also happen in sediment pools with pipe overflows. The pipe freezes and the sediment pool floods downstream: a road, the main pond, etc. A vertical standpipe can be damaged by movement of ice. The pipe might get pushed around by moving ice, and break the pipe, or disconnect couplings. Sometimes ice can pull a standpipe right out of its connection to the drain, when the waterlevel and ice rises. 


Designing your pond to avoid problems with ice is the best defense against trouble. Next is to correct construction flaws ahead of ice time. And always keep an eye on inflows and outflows during the ice season to catch potential problems.

Read More Pondologies

Topics vary from month to month and provide great information when researching where you want to build a pond, or how to keep it clean.  Other areas of interest are pond use for more than swimming, and how to keep fish happy in your pond.