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This Northwoods explorer skates on thin ice...literally

Sub-zero temperatures are not for everyone, but for one Northwoods adventure-seeker, the colder the better.

When the temperature lingers in the negative digits, Tim Fitzgerald tosses a life jacket over his winter coat, buckles on a ski helmet and slings a pair of ice picks around his neck.

He’s going ice skating, but not on an indoor rink.

Fitzgerald, or Fitz as he’s known, calls himself a “wild ice-skating explorer.”

As soon as a thin layer of ice covers a lake, Fitz and his buddies are on it, skating loops around the smooth, virgin ice.

Wild ice skating
Erin Gottsacker
Tim Fitzgerald ice skates with his dog on Sparkling Lake in Vilas County.

“We make a joke, the new way to get exercise is just scare yourself on thin ice,” Fitz laughs. “Your heart rate will go up. It’s better than any of those pills you buy on TV.”

The group skates just after the ice forms because they’re in a race against Mother Nature.

Once it snows, their all-natural ice rink will be ruined, so they’ll move on.

“We’ll start on shallow lakes and move deeper and deeper,” Fitz explains.

The deeper the lake, the later it freezes. This is how the group manages to keep skating on ice rather than trudging through the snow that eventually starts accumulating on top.

“Eventually, when the big lakes freeze over, we have to go to Lake Superior,” Fitz says. “We skate on the biggest lake in the world!”

For now, though, Fitz, his dog, and a friend are sticking to a smaller lake.

Sparkling Lake is about 150 acres and 60 feet deep. A layer of frost has crystallized over the ice, so it lives up to its name, sparkling in the afternoon sunshine.

When we pull up to the lake on a snow covered wayside, Fitz isn’t sure the lake will be totally frozen over.

But he’s hopeful when he bends down to drill a hole through the ice.

He sticks a tape measure inside.

“It is two and half inches, and two inches will hold you. Forty-four millimeters will hold you,” he says. “This ice isn’t cracking much, but if it’s less than two inches, it’ll crack underneath your feet.”

Erin Gottsacker
Sparkling Lake, frozen on a winter day

With that, Fitz takes off.

The ice pops and groans under his weight.

“That cracking noise, some is just your weight and some is just expansion (from the sun's warmth),” he explains. “If a group gets together...we like our friends, but sometimes we tell them to stay away.”

Every now and then he stops and jabs the ice four times with his ski pole, testing it to make sure it’s still thick enough as he makes his way to the middle of the lake.

The ice doesn’t give way…this time.

“Sometimes a crack will appear behind you when you skate,” he says. “It’s always good to be the first guy. Well, sometimes.”

Sometimes the first guy takes an unexpected ice bath.

“I haven’t fallen in lately,” Fitz says, but he’s prepared just in case.

That’s why he wears a life jacket and ice picks and carries an emergency change of clothes in a dry bag.

He even jumps into a frozen lake once a year, just to practice getting out.

But the fear of the fall is hardly enough to keep Fitz from gliding across shimmering lakes, surrounded by the majesty of towering pines.

If anything, he says, it adds to the thrill of skating on thin ice.

Note: If you're thinking about ice skating this season, be safe. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources recommends a list of safety precautions.

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Erin Gottsacker joined WXPR in December 2020. As a morning edition host and reporter, Erin reports on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.