May 7, 2020: Bigstone Bay

I’m going to start with two pictures that are a couple of days old, and then show how things are changing. Bigstone Bay is one of the last places on Lake of the Woods to have ice. I’m not sure why, but this is true year after year. Perhaps there’s not much current.

You can click on the pictures to see them full-screen. That version can be zoomed.

Except the satellite image. Kenora’s Round Lake is about the smallest thing the MODIS cameras can show you, and trying to zoom in will just make it worse.

The first two pictures are from Al Smith, operator of Smith Camps on Thunder Bay.

Looking west from Heenan Point.  Sultana Island on the right, Scotty Island on left.

Still a good extent of ice in this picture from sunset on Tuesday evening.

Looking east from Smith Camps on Thunder Bay towards Eagle Pass.

Eagle pass is the water route around the east end of Hay Island. Al says it looks to be ice free from Route Bay through to Moore Bay.

Now some drone photographs from today, with thanks to Michael Tomashowski.

This picture facing West shows Bigstone Bay with Heenan Point poking out into the ice.

Looking north east at Longbow Lake.

The west end of Longbow looks open, but zoom in to get a better look at the ice in the more distant east half of the lake.

Michael has operated a DJI Mavic Pro since 2017. Thanks, Michael.

NASA’s Terra Satellite got a clear view of Lake of the Woods today. Here’s the false-colour image.

The ice on Shoal Lake is still visible from space.

The bright blue patch at the left is ice on Shoal Lake; it’s shrinking day by day. Less easy to spot is the ice on Bigstone. Near the north end of Lake of the Woods, look for a sizeable island shaped like a battered battle-axe, chopping downward: that’s Hay Island. Just north of it, a dim patch of blue is the thin ice remaining on Bigstone. Longbow Lake is just north of that, but the ice there is not visible to the satellite’s camera. Too thin and waterlogged, I expect. If there’s any ice remaining south of the Barrier Islands, I can’t see it.


Lake of the Woods Ice Patrol has seen a sharp reduction in web visitors this spring, to about half of recent years. Fair enough. Many visitors won’t be able to come in the early part of spring. Also, my being laid off from my flying job for three months (because of the pandemic) has meant that there have been far fewer aerial photographs this year, and that some areas have had much less coverage. Sorry about that.

But there have been pluses: I’ve had a lot more guest contributors this year. Many have taken the time to email me photographs to share with you. Some have made multiple flights in their small planes, and for the first time, I’ve been able to feature drone photography.

Despite the problems, it’s been gratifying to be able to do this blog while grounded. I never dreamed I’d get this much help. Thank you all.


May 5, 2020: Remnants

We’re down to the last remnants of ice on Lake of the Woods now.

John Lunny sent this “before and after” pair of pictures taken from Lunny’s Island today as the ice cover changed dramatically. What a difference a day makes!

You can click on these pictures to see them full-screen.

The view is east down Bigstone Bay, with Kipling Island near the middle of the picture.

This morning

Late this afternoon

Fascinating to see the ice go dark in a matter of hours. John says the thermometer at his camp went as high as 22ºC this afternoon, although the official temperature at the Kenora airport never got higher than 14ºC.

An hour later, I got these pictures from Ted Main, also of Bigstone Bay, but from a different angle.

Kipling Island again, but looking west

The ice is totally candled.

Looking towards Northern Harbour from Heenan Point


Since we had mostly sunny weather today, I was hoping the satellite images would be clear. I was wondering about ice south of the Barrier Islands. Terra’s view was half obscured by cloud, but Aqua managed a mostly clear view.

The image is only 640 pixels square, but if you click on it, you’ll see a version overlaid  with tags for Kenora, Bigstone Bay, the Barrier Islands, and Shoal Lake.

Lake of the Woods, May 5, 2020. MODIS camera on NASA’s Aqua satellite. False-colour image.

The wispy blue is high cloud. Ice on the lake, specifically on Shoal Lake, and on Lake of the Woods south of the Barrier Islands, is a little more defined. Note that the ice is a very dark blue, indicating it is very thin and weak.

It will be gone soon.

Just before I uploaded this post, I got a couple of pictures from Matthew Belair. The Belairs have a place on Queer Island, not far from that ice by the Barrier Islands.

These are drone photos, taken this evening.

Looking east into Andrew Bay with the east end of Queer Island in the foreground.

No ice this way. But wait, there’s more.

Looking south at French Narrows. That’s the Eastern Peninsula at the left and East Allie Island at the right. 

These pictures aren’t very zoomable, but in the upper right corner, there’s ice down around Robertson Island.

So thanks to all of today’s contributors: John Lunny, Ted Main, and Matthew Belair.

Starting Wednesday night, the Weather Network says we may see a string of cold nights, with overnight lows of -5ºC for three nights in a row. I didn’t like that forecast, so I went to see what Environment Canada had to say… [Grits teeth] It’s worse! They’re saying minus seven on Thursday night. Really? It’s May. Would an afternoon on the deck be too much to ask?

Oh, well. Happy Cinco de Mayo!

May 4, 2020: What’s Left?

It’s no longer a question of what’s melting, it’s now about what’s still frozen.

The satellites were stymied by cloud today, and I wanted to know what’s going on at Bigstone Bay, so I texted a friend. John Sweeney sent me this pretty picture.

Before you jump to the conclusion that Bigstone is completely clear, you should click on the picture, and zoom in on the full-screen version. There’s a big pan of ice at the left. John was standing on the mainland, on the point between Route Bay and Storm Bay, and looking south across Bigstone Bay at Hay Island. 

If I understand John’s explanation, the ice is in or around Hay Island’s East Bay.

Here’s a second picture looking a little more to the left. I cropped it to make it easier to look at the ice. You’ll probably still want to zoom in.

You might be wondering what’s special about Bigstone Bay. I pay attention to it because it’s one of the areas on Lake of the Woods that thaws late. I expect there’s also ice south of the Barrier Islands, but I don’t know how much.

If it all melts in the next few days, this will be the quickest thaw* on our charts, even though it’s one of the later ones.

*using the specific definition that the thaw commences on the inflection date [the date when the mean daily temperature goes consistently above freezing] and ends the day the lake is 100% ice-free.

May 3, 2020: Tipping Point

Yes it snowed last night. Not a lot, but I had to scrape the car windows.

Yesterday, I talked about the trade-off between strong winds and low temperatures. When the lake is ice-covered, wind doesn’t make a lot of difference, so the near-freezing temperatures would win out. But once the lake is about one third open, wind can push the ice around and break it up. I wasn’t sure how this would play out while conditions were so cold, but the wind won.

My first clue was a comment from Minnie, who wrote to say she saw nothing but open water from the south shore. She was down by Morris Point and Warroad. Now you can’t see all that far from the shore, but Josh Broten takes his Cub up to ten thousand feet to get pictures from the US side, and from there, you can see a long way. Here’s what he got this afternoon.

You can click on these pictures to see a full-screen, zoomable version.

Big Traverse

So Minnie was right on. Not a scrap of ice to be seen on the south end of the lake.

Moose Lake

Moose Lake Provincial Park (middle distance) and Birch Point (foreground) are in the Manitoba corner of Lake of the Woods. No ice here, either.

Looking north east from the Northwest Angle

Clipper Island is at the lower left of this shot, Cochrane Island is almost touching the left edge, and Big Narrows is in the distance. That far-off ice is up towards Wiley Point, somewhere around Cintiss Island

Looking northeast  from over Falcon Island.

Beyond Falcon Island lies French Portage Narrows. At the left of the frame, near the wing strut, is Big Narrows. That’s the same patch of ice in the far distance.


Shoal Lake

I love this shot of Shoal Lake. There’s still a giant patch of white ice around Dominique and Stevens Islands, but the lake looks to be over half open, not just on the south shore, but also in the northern parts near the Trans-Canada highway.

In case you were wondering, it takes a long time to climb to ten thousand feet in a Cub. Thanks, Josh.

The Aqua and Terra satellites didn’t get a clear look at Lake of the Woods today, but skies cleared enough this afternoon for Aqua to get a partial view.

2020 False colour image from May 3rd. MODIS camera on NASA’s Aqua satellite.

What we can see is all that open water at the south end, and the patch of ice on Shoal Lake at the left. Subtle, but visible, is ice near Hay Island. The part of the lake south of the Barrier Islands is very hard to see. I think there’s some ice there.

Compare this to the clear and sharp image from April 30th.

2020 False colour image from April 30th. MODIS camera on NASA’s Aqua satellite.

Same satellite, same camera, just three days ago!

That’s why this post is titled Tipping Point. Once the ice is more than half gone, it goes suddenly.

However, if it seems cool to you for May, it is. A normal high this time of year is about 15ºC, and an average overnight low would be about 3ºC. Forecast temperatures continue to run cooler than that, with this week getting no warmer than 10ºC and perhaps only reaching  4º on Thursday. Overnight lows could dip as low as -4ºC.

Will we be able to melt the lake with those kinds of temperatures? Yes. But I’m not sure how rapidly. With normal temperatures, I’d expect the remaining ice to be gone in a couple of days, which would put us in the early May bracket, which is pretty common. With this forecast, I’m less sure, but I think we’re on track to do better than the May 14th thaw that Sean and I both predicted just a week ago.

We might be ice free by next weekend. Which is forecast to be cold, by the way. So far, the Weather Network is calling for highs of just six or seven next weekend.

And if that’s not enough to discourage you, remember that Ontario is not moving to lift pandemic restrictions as fast as Manitoba or Quebec, and Premier Doug Ford is flat-out asking out-of-province visitors to stay home. Here’s a link to Kenora Online‘s page with that story.


May 2, 2020: Satellite Saturday Plus

It’s cold again, but we have a strong wind. With the lake partly open, windy conditions have the potential to destroy ice wholesale, but this spring is being weird. There’s snow in the forecast tonight, and near-freezing overnight lows forecast for half the week. To be honest, I don’t know what to make of it.

Let’s do the satellite thing to try and get some perspective. An ‘overview’ if you will.

It’s been cloudy, so I can’t use images from May 2nd or even May 1st; the most recent good pictures were from April 30th.  My first thought was to compare those to April 30th of last year, but no such luck; it was cloudy at the end of April last year. Moving back another year to April 30th of 2018? Score! Clear shots. Here’s why it makes sense to compare this year to that one. 2018, 2019 and 2020 were late starting thaws in cold spring weather. The ice cleared fairly rapidly in both 2018 and 2019, with the lake going ice-free on May 14th both years. This year we got an even later start, courtesy of some nasty cold April weather, but given that the ice was not that thick, Sean and I both thought we could catch up and completely thaw the lake by about the 14th.

These are false-colour images: the brighter the blue, the thicker the ice, and open water is black. These pictures are not zoomable: this is all the resolution there is.

However, if you click on the top picture, you’ll see an archive image with some landmarks labelled to help you get oriented. Pay no attention to the ice cover in that file photo.

Okay, let’s look at the pictures:

2018 False-colour image from April 30th. MODIS camera on NASA’s Terra satellite.

2020 False colour image from April 30th. MODIS camera on NASA’s Aqua satellite.

Well, huh. Aside from the fact that this year’s image is sharper (they vary) it’s pretty clear that we have less ice this year than two years ago on the same date.

It looks as if large parts of cottage country have open water already, and once we reach this stage, the rest of the lake is not usually far behind.

If we had a decent weather forecast, I’d be confident that the lake was going to be ice-free earlier than the 14th. However, we have several days of unseasonably cold temperatures coming up. I just don’t know.

I haven’t been able to cover the Sioux Narrows area this year. Ordinarily, I’d make a little detour on the way home from Dryden now and then, but the pandemic has grounded me this spring, so I couldn’t do that.

I was happy to receive this picture from Tony Lord this evening.

Regina Bay – Sioux Narrows. Taken just south of Crystal Harbour and looking East. The island in the foreground is Kennard Island.

Tony says: Ice at our dock was up to 8” thick in places but breaking up on Thursday morning with sections of open water. By Friday afternoon the majority of the bay that we can see is open except a stretch immediately North (left) of Kennard Island.

Thanks, Tony.

Okay, now we have to talk about the pandemic restrictions. Ontario Premier Doug Ford has announced that some businesses will be able to open soon, with restrictions.

For instance, marinas will  be allowed to put boats in the water. BUT! That doesn’t mean you can go boating. The marinas aren’t going to be open to the public, and the boats have to stay tied to a dock. They’re just being allowed to catch up on a backlog of launching boats. Actually letting people take their boat will have to wait.

Here’s a link to the full Kenora Online article on this story.


May 1, 2020: Rapid Change

I received pictures from three contributors today, so here they are in chronological order.

All the pictures are zoomable if you click on them to see them full-screen.

First, some fresh pictures of the south end of the lake, from Minnesota based pilot Josh Broten. These were taken in the last hours of April: the evening of the 30th.

The first picture looks south east at Springsteel and Warroad. Muskeg Bay has a lot of open water, and the ice that remains is candled and disintegrating.

Looking east over Buffalo Bay.

Looking east across Big Traverse to Big Island and Bigsby Island. Looks like open water in the distance, east of Bigsby.

Looking north over Oak and Flag Islands, with water all the way up to Big Narrows. North of Sunset Channel still seems to be ice.

Little Traverse, with open water to the east in Ontario.

Thanks Josh.

Now to the more northerly part of the lake and some pictures from the Belairs, taken today.

Twelve Mile Portage, looking north west.

And again, looking south.

Ptarmigan Bay.

Mazies Island, over the window vent, then Scotty Island, and behind that the Manitou with Whiskey Island in the distance. Ice on the Manitou looks pretty rotten.

Lunny’s Island looking west.  Scotty Island is at the left edge, Town Island is partly hidden by the wing spar at the right.

Thanks, Kelly, Ashley and Taylor.

Lastly, two pictures from Andy Zabloski, taken from one of the MAG Canada King Airs.

Overlooking Coney Island and Rat Portage Bay, with Devil’s Gap right at the blurred propeller tip.

A better look down Bigstone Bay. Lots of ice out there.

Thanks Andy, and everyone who has made Ice Patrol possible this year.

Overall, I’d have to say the ice seems to be going fast, and the rain today and tonight could accelerate that. Thaws that get off to a late start can be rapid. On the other hand, the weekend is forecast to be cool, with daytime highs in the single (Celsius) digits, and overnight lows near or below freezing.


April 28, 2020: Kelly & Matthew Belair

Kelly Belair got his Maule M4 floatplane flying today, in fact I saw him fly overhead when I was walking on Tunnel Island. Here are some of the pictures taken by his son Matthew.

You can click on them to see the image full-screen, and that version can be zoomed to full resolution.

This is the Manitou, with Lemon Island in the foreground and better-known Whiskey Island further back. There’s still a lot of ice out this way, and even some pressure ridges, but overall it looks weak.

Looking south from Skead’s Landing on Matheson Bay.

From over the south end of Scotty Island, this shot looks north east. The ice road is breaking up in Smuggler’s Cove. In the middle distance are Mazies Island at the left  and a chunk of Middle Island to the right. In the far distance are Bigstone Bay and Heenan Point. Bigstone is always late to thaw.

South of Hay Island, looking south east with Andrew Bay in the distance. Railroad Island is at the right edge of the frame.

Queer Island.

Sign of spring: a water bomber (known in the industry as a tanker) doing spring training in the glassy water by the Elbow.

I’m amazed that I’ve been able to produce the Ice Patrol while not actively flying this spring, and it’s heartwarming to have all the help from contributors like Kelly and Matthew.


April 27, 2020: Jason Duguay / Sean Cockrem

Here are the latest pictures from Jason Duguay, taken from the ORNGE helicopter yesterday.

You can click on these pictures to see them full-screen and zoomable. That’s worth doing, by the way: you can get a much better idea of the condition of the ice, even in the distance.

Devil’s Gap, with Goat Island and Johnson Island sitting at the edge of the ice.

Rat Portage Bay, with Gun Club Island in the middle.

West end of Coney Island, and the Yacht Club end of Keewatin Channel.

I’ve been asked about predictions. There are two ways we can do this: science, and history.

Let’s start with Sean Cockrem, who does the science.

To recap, Sean gauges how cold the winter was by totalling up the mean daily temperatures for all the days where the mean was below freezing. That gives him an idea of how the ice thickness might compare to recent winters. Based on other winters, he calculates how many warm days we might need to thaw that amount of ice. Then he goes to the long-term weather forecast (which has let us down before) to try and work out an approximate date when we should accumulate enough heat to melt all the ice.

We had a warm spell in late March, and it looked as if the thaw might be under way. Then the first three weeks of April were miserably cold. Not just below average, but mostly below freezing, and sometimes way below. If we melted a little ice in the afternoon, we refroze it overnight. So Sean’s original interpretation that we could say the inflection date–when the mean daily temperature rose to be consistently above freezing–could be pegged at March 26, had to be revised. By nearly a month! We finally turned the corner on April 22nd.

You can click on the graphs to see them larger and full-screen.

Here’s a graph that compares the severity of the last few winters.

Each winter is depicted as a downward spike. The colder the winter, the deeper the spike. And the longer the winter, the wider the spike. Last winter, at the right hand side of the graph, was not terribly cold, but you can see how it dragged on, and right at the tip of the spike is our nasty little cold snap, shaped like a little claw.

Okay, so we know what kind of winter it was. What can that tell us about the thaw?

On this graph, the lines all begin on the inflection date, but the dates shown are for this year. The idea is to show how 2020 compares to the best and worst years if you line them all up at the starting gate.

The blue line is 2020, with dots for each day’s actual mean temperature. Looking ahead, the yellow line shows how it will go if the weather forecast comes true.

Part of this prediction is an educated guess. Because we know late springs tend to melt faster than early ones, Sean chose a thaw index that takes into account longer sunnier days, instead of just blindly applying the same mathematical formula. His tentative conclusion? We still need about three weeks to get the lake entirely ice free, and we should make it just in time for the May long weekend, which is early this year, at mid-month.

Before I had Sean crunching numbers, I made predictions in a rather simpler way: I looked through my archives to find pictures that showed a similar extent of ice, and then I checked to see how long it took to melt that time.

You can do this yourself, if you like. There’s an archive tool on the Ice Patrol website that lets you look through the previous several years month by month. I have pictures from April 25th from both 2018 and 2019, and it looks as if this year is kind of in between, but roughly the same.

Here’s what I call the “Jenga Graph” it shows a stack of sticks, with each one representing a thaw starting on the inflection date and ending on the day the lake was 100% ice free. The most recent years are at the top, and 2020 is pale blue because it’s just a guess.

This graph reveals that we really did get a late start on the thaw this year. Of all the years since 2008, only 2013 had a later inflection date than 2020. That doesn’t have to mean the ice will last longer, though. Although the ice has been reluctant to melt, it was not very thick this year.

So it looks as if Sean and I agree pretty much to the day. That doesn’t mean we’ll be right, of course! We’ve been wrong before. Sigh. Almost always.

Sign of spring: the snow sculptures on the harbourfront have finally melted completely. Ice is out on Kenora Bay.

Just like every year, the lake will melt. Unlike other years, we may not be able to enjoy it much. Until restrictions for the pandemic begin to lift, very few of us will be able to get out there. Even when things start to improve, some form of physical distancing will probably still be necessary. Large gatherings will have to wait. I don’t think we’ll be tying our boats together, or sharing drinks from a common cooler, anytime soon.

Be strong. Be patient. Be healthy.



April 23, 2020: Josh Broten / Kelly Belair

The first pictures were taken by Josh Broten at the south end of the lake on Wednesday, the 22nd. He flies a cub out of Rosseau, Minnesota. I lifted the captions straight from his email.

Looking SE over Muskeg Bay. You can see the ice is really weak around the shore by Springsteel Resort and Warroad.

Looking east over Garden island.

Looking east over little traverse.


Looking north through Tug and French portage. Open water is all through Tranquil and down past Kennedy and almost leading to Skeet as it hugs Horse Island. Hoping for some big changes over the weekend and into next week with possible rain and higher daytime ad overnight temps.


Now some drone pictures from Kelly Belair. These were taken on Thursday, April 23rd.

If I’m understanding Kelly’s email correctly, he put a boat in the water at the Recreation Centre and managed to make his way almost to Scotty Island, although he had to push through some rotten ice to do it. There he encountered solid ice and launched the drone to take pictures.

Scotty beach looking south. Can see the water at strawberry narrows and if you zoom in it’s all water from railroad to east tip of queer and south of queer is open all the way to the elbow.

The Manitou with Whiskey Island on the right. Can see lots of water on the left of the photo, that’s the Elbow.

Looking west over Holmstrom’s Marsh top right. Whiskey top left.

Thanks, Josh and thanks, Kelly.

Signs of spring: I saw a motorcyclist today for the first time in over a week. I put my summer tires on this afternoon, as the temperatures will (finally!) be warmer than 7ºC. We made it to 13º today, which is normal for this time of year. The Weather Network is forecasting  not-quite-normal temperatures for the next fourteen days.


April 20, 2020: Bruce White

This picture is a couple of days old. Bruce White, from Air Canada, took it on the 18th. We had some trouble getting the picture to me yesterday, but we got it sorted out today. In any case, it’s barely been above freezing since it was taken, so the date doesn’t matter much.

You can click on this picture to see a full-screen version that can be zoomed to full resolution.

This image looks north from the south end of Lake of the Woods. Big Island is in the foreground, and the large landmass in the centre is the Alneau Peninsula. Big Narrows is behind the closer hinge fairing. (the tapered shape sticking out behind the wing) In the middle of the more northerly expanse of ice, you can see the Barrier Islands, and beyond that is Kenora and Upper and Lower Black Sturgeon Lakes.

Anyway, it’s almost all ice. On the bright side, the snow cover is mostly gone, so if we could just get some normal temperatures for a day or two…

Thanks, Bruce!