What’s the deal with ice cutting, anyway?

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

What’s become commonplace to one person can be a whole new world to another.

It struck me (at my manager’s insistence) that there are many questions to be answered regarding cutting and storing ice. It’s not exactly a widespread practice anymore, though our little bay community is far from the only ones who do it each winter, even within northwestern Ontario.

Still, I have a somewhat unique opportunity to walk you through the process, from the days and weeks in advance of our ice cutting day, to what it’s like breaking up large chunks of ice for the cooler in the middle of August.

Prep begins well ahead of our late February ice cutting day. In order to ensure we have thick enough ice to not only harvest but do so safely, my dad will take the old Massey Feguson tractor and clear off a large patch of ice of as much snow and slush as he can. Snow is an excellent insulator, so the more snow we have on the ice, the slower it is to thicken. The weight of the snow can also push down on the ice and force more water to the surface, leading to wet, slushy snow that can freeze into a layer of less than desirable ice. Clearing a patch, and keeping it clear, makes for a much easier day, and a better final product.

With the patch cleared, we will then use an auger to drill some holes to get ice measurements. According to the Red Cross, at least 25 centimetres (9.8 inches) of ice is recommended for safely using a snow machine. 35 centimetres (13.7 inches) is what’s recommended for safely installing an ice fishing hut, and is also on the lower end of what’s considered safe for mid-sized vehicles. Where we once used snow machines with something like a dog sled attached to the back to haul cut ice, as long as the ice thickness allows it, we’ve more recently relied on pickup trucks to do the work instead. It makes a big difference when you’re hauling upwards of 100 blocks of ice from the lake.

After the thickness of the ice has been assessed, we use a custom-built chainsaw rig to begin scoring and cutting into the ice. The chainsaw fits and bolts into the rig, which is on skis, and allows us to pull the whole unit in as straight a line as possible. Once one line is cut, a guide on the ski slots into that line, and ensures every subsequent pass is parallel and uniform. Then we move the rig to cut across the pattern, chopping the area up into uniform squares. After that we break the blocks loose using a prybar and pull them out using ice block tongs. Any frozen layers of slush on top of the blocks are then cut off to keep only the crystal clear ice from below: the good stuff.

If the ice is thick enough, we can break the blocks out without flooding the hole, or even cutting all the way through it. Years when there isn’t enough ice to do that, or when we accidentally cut through the deepest layer of ice, means we finish the job cold and wet. Much better to not have to worry about frigid lake water until after all the work is done.

Once a load of ice is packed up in a waiting pickup truck, it gets hauled up the hill to our ice shed. To imagine the inside of the ice shed, consider a space probably a bit smaller than your average three-piece bathroom; that’s what we’re working with. Once the first layer of ice is put down (this year the bottom layer was 35 blocks in a five by seven arrangement) then we use shovels and a snowblower to cover the layer with sawdust. The sawdust acts as another excellent insulator, filling the cracks between each block and helping to separate each subsequent layer from the one before it. The ice shed usually fits over 100 blocks of ice; this year I believe the final tally was around 130.

In ye olden times (though not so old that I don’t remember them), this hole endeavour (get it?) took the better part of a weekend. Ice would be cut and run up the hill four or five blocks at a time. Nowadays, a full pickup truck load can be twice or three times as much. This year we started working at 11:00 a.m. and were mostly wrapped up by 4:00 p.m., and that included some technical difficulties brought about by weeks of bone-chilling cold. Turns out a pile of sawdust can freeze so solid that only a chainsaw will break it up.

With the day’s work finally done, any trimmings and leftover blocks of ice are put back in the hole, and left to refreeze solid in the water (we’ll finally punch all the way through if we haven’t by that point, the resulting geyser can be impressive). The cleared out space on the ice is obvious enough that no one is in any danger of accidentally driving a snowmobile into the open spot, and we usually mark it off to be safe.

Once the warm summer days have rolled around again, the stored ice is worth its weight in gold. After we’ve decided more ice is needed for a cooler or water jug, we trek over to the shed and open it up. Once a block of ice is located under the sawdust, the tongs are used to pull it free and load it into whatever vehicle awaits. When we’ve gotten back to the cabin, the ice gets washed off of all the remaining sawdust and then chunked up into pieces small enough for whatever purpose we need. Everything from groceries to leftovers to beer gets kept nice and cool, and all it took was a few hours of labour.