Fisherman saves self as ice begins to separate from shore in Duluth

Firefighters responded only to find their water rescue services weren't needed.

Ice fishing
Unstable ice conditions require caution both in the Duluth Harbor and especially on the fickle pack ice of Lake Superior.
File / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — At around 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, the U.S. Coast Guard received a call from a person on the 1400 block of London Road who observed a fisherman apparently in distress as the patch of ice on which he was standing began to drift away from shore.

The Coast Guard notified the Duluth Fire Department, which activated a rescue team. When firefighters arrived at the scene, however, the individual was already making his way to safety.

"He was able to reroute around the part that had opened up and get himself to shore," said Assistant Fire Chief Dan Lattner, explaining that the self-rescue involved a bit of creative hopscotch.

All anglers have been safely evacuated from Upper Red Lake according to a 3:20 p.m. update from the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office.

"The problem with the pack ice that we get on Lake Superior is it all blows in as pieces of ice," he said. "It's not a sheet of ice, like we see on inland lakes where a complete sheet of ice forms over the lake. It's pieces of ice that blow in from the other side of the lake when the wind is right. And when it piles up, it doesn't form a perfect surface of ice.

"There are little pockets of open water here and there," Lattner said, noting that a shift in the wind can quickly cause the pieces of ice to disperse.


Although once in a while during a prolonged cold stretch, sheet ice has been known to form on Lake Superior, pack ice is more of the norm.

"Most years, you look out there one day, and it's ice as far as the eye can see. But when you look out a couple days later, there's no ice to be seen, other than what's just tied to the shore. It's ever-changing on Lake Superior, for sure," Lattner said.

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With ice-breaking activities beginning in preparation for the start of the shipping season, Lattner said conditions are even less predictable.

"As they break open the shipping lanes, that changes the forces applied to different sheets of ice, even in the bay, where those will start to separate out as well," he said. "The takeaway is that Lake Superior ice is never to be trusted. You need to be ever-vigilant when you go out on that ice."

In February 2021, 27 anglers required rescue when a large piece of ice broke away from shore in Duluth.

Lattner recommended that people who do choose to venture onto the ice should advise others of their plans, including where they're going and when they intend to be on and off the ice. Lattner also advises people to be equipped with a flotation device, ice picks and a reliable means of communication.

The takeaway is that Lake Superior ice is never to be trusted. You need to be ever-vigilant when you go out on that ice.
Assistant Fire Chief Dan Lattner

Lattner would prefer people stay off unstable ice entirely, but said: "We see this every year. This happens every single year."

When people get themselves in trouble and require a rescue response, Lattner said it also puts others at risk.


"They do definitely put our responders at risk, because then we need to go into that ice, and with the ice moving around, you're talking about chunks of ice that are hundreds or thousands of pounds shifting around, and there's always a chance of someone getting caught or crushed in between them," he said.

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Bygones is researched and written by David Ouse, retired reference librarian from the Duluth Public Library. He can be contacted at

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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