Cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, bird-watching and ice fishing are popular activities for those who enjoy getting outdoors this time of year. But when outdoor enthusiasts are spending time on one of the areas frozen lakes, it's important to be aware of the ice conditions.
Brian Lammers, Hamilton County Conservation director, said Briggs Woods and Little Wall lakes both have thick layers of ice, but urged caution when venturing out onto the ice.
"Ice is very unpredictable, especially on lakes and rivers. Right now, Briggs Woods has a good ice cover," he said. "Parts of the northern end of the lake have ice 14-inches thick."
Just a few yards from the Briggs Wood Lake beach, a fisherman has set up a fishing shelter. Conservation officials estimate that the lake has a 14-inch layer of ice.
"Little Wall Lake probably has about 10 to 12 inches of ice," he added.
Lammers said many Iowa lakes are spring-fed and when that occurs, he said there could be areas of weaker ice.
"We always caution people when venturing out on the ice," he said. "It's always up to the individual. A lot of people carry sticks and punch ahead to see what strength is going to be."
Lammer said ice fishermen are often the best indicator of ice conditions. The anglers must auger through the ice to reach open water for fishing.
"We're able to get an instant measurement from the fishermen," he said.
He said the best signs to look for at the color of the ice. A blue-clear ice color will likely indicate the strongest ice, he said. Cracks shouldn't raise many concerns, he explained, as ice is always moving.
"It not like an ice cube. Ice shifts and moves," he said. "When you're sitting out on the ice, you may hear pops and booms - the movement. That's natural and it's a good sign. On thin ice, you don't hear that movement unless you fall through."
Weaker ice may appear dark or black or honey-combed. He said pressure ridges may also indicate a weakened area.
"Ice can shift and come up over the top of another section, so that ice is moving quite a bit," he said. "When they shift back, those areas can be thin and weaker sections."
One of the more visible ways to determine ice conditions is to keep an eye on flocks of geese. Anytime a large flock congregates and they find some open water, Lammers said those areas of ice will likely be weaker.
Lammer said ice fishing this winter has been very strong at Briggs Woods. Little Wall Lake has had some activity as well.
"They've been catching some nice blue gill through the ice at Briggs," he said.
Lammers said that since there is some snow cover on the lakes, cross country skiing and snow shoeing would be a great way to enjoy the outdoors.
"Bird watching and nature hiking also would be fun on the lake," he said. "But if people aren't comfortable going out on the lake, then by all means, don't venture out there."
If someone should happen to fall through the ice, Lammers said, "Don't panic."
Using your arms, pull yourself up back through the ice and once out of the water, don't stand up.
"What they want to do is roll - roll away from the hole. And always take a friend along when you're out on the ice. There's safety in numbers," he said. He reminded parents to never let children venture out on the ice alone.
"By using common sense and checking conditions, there's no reason people can't enjoy a day on the lake in the winter," he said.