DULUTH, Minn. — The first thing you notice is that there is no brake.
But then, after wind fills the sail and you are gliding across the ice, you really don’t care.
Rapid acceleration. Freedom. Speed. Quiet. The click-clack of the runners on ice, but little other noise. Then a little panic as the first turn goes a little too fast. But there’s nothing much to smash into, except the occasional portable ice fishing shelter or an ice skater. Or shore. Or maybe a fracture in the ice. Or, if you tip, the ice itself.
Good idea to have a helmet on.
“If you need to stop, turn it into the wind,’’ said Rory Strange, a Park Point resident and avid ice boater who was giving an impromptu lesson to a first-timer. “And maybe drag a foot if you have to.”
Ice boating has a more than 200-year history in the U.S. and a small but avid following across the Upper Midwest. In Duluth, Park Pointers who live along Superior Bay have been among the most active in the Northland, although only a few hardcore enthusiasts remain.
It’s absolutely exhilarating, even with just a 10 mph wind. Because of the physics of wind and ice and sails, ice boats can easily go three or four times faster than the wind speed. With a 20 mph wind, that’s as fast as a car on the freeway.
“When conditions are like this, it’s just a bucket of fun,’’ Strange said after a recent ride on his boat, dubbed the Hog Island Express. He wore a smile seemingly frozen in place.
But it’s a tough sport to love in the Northland, with our regular big snowstorms. Not because it’s difficult or dangerous, but because years can go by without conditions that work well. This December’s early ice and lack of snow, however, has been a godsend for iceboaters. Even last week’s rain helped smooth the ice.
“This is just perfect,” Strange said of the Duluth harbor ice along Park Point in recent weeks. It’s thick enough to be safe and very smooth to allow the ice boat runners unobstructed glide. In many years, snow is the culprit. Anything more than an inch of fluff shuts the ice boat season down. Heavy rain or freeze-thaw cycles also can make the ice too rough. And too much warmth can pull the ice away from shore.
And you have to have wind. Days of doldrums can be maddening for ice boaters.
“It can be years before you get the right conditions like this year. ... Last year I had the boat ready and suddenly the wind died that day. Then the next day it snowed a bunch and that was it … done,’’ Strange said.
“When I was a kid, you’d just wait and pray for conditions like we have this year. You’d get one good year and then not be able to sail for four or five years in a row,’’ said Steve Sola, who grew up on and still lives on Park Point. Sola seemed a bit sad that he wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this year’s conditions. “I probably have the parts for three or four boats in pieces around my house and couldn’t put one good boat together out of them.”
Chip Jacobs, a fourth generation Park Pointer, owns and runs a rear- steering ice boat he had out over the last week. The boat, a hand-me-down from other Park Pointers and at least 60 years old, looked its age, but still flew across the ice.
“They haven’t used canvas sails like this since the ’50s, so this is at least that old. ... And it wouldn’t be an ice boat if it wasn’t held together with twine and bailing wire,’’ Jacobs said as he was rigging the boat. “It really doesn’t pay to put too much into something you can only use two hours every five years.”
Jacobs said ice boating is kind of a dying sport in the Northland, with other adrenaline sports taking over. But he’s trying to keep the tradition going.
“My dad and uncles would tell stories of ice boating out on the big lake, all the way to Cornucopia and back,’’ Jacobs said. “We don’t get ice like that any more.”
Strange’s ice boat was gifted to him by longtime ice boater Bob Hom. Hom gave the boat to Strange and fellow Park Pont resident Tom Mackay with the caveat that they store it inside, so it would last, and that they would introduce the sport to as many people as possible.
“I try to get people in it all the time,’’ Strange said.
Hom grew up on Park Point in the 1950s and built his first ice boat with his brothers out of two 2x10 boards and three blades off old hockey skates.
“Everybody around here builds their own boats. … I think I spent $50 total building the Hog Island Express,’’ Hom said, noting the name comes from the island along the Superior side of the harbor. That’s where Hom found the huge white pine up on shore. He floated it back to Park Point, eventually had it milled and used part of the lumber for the ice boat.
“If you like speed, if you like to go fast, there’s nothing like ice boats,’’ said Hom, who now lives in Superior. “The bigger boats can easily do 70 mph without any problem … I had the police use their radar on me when I had a big Skeeter class boat and I hit 105 mph. Of course, back then, we had no helmets, no goggles. ... But we survived.”
Mackay, a lifelong Park Pointer, recalls growing up on ice boats in the 1950s when as many as 30 different boats would be out at once on Superior Bay.
“That was a lot, probably the last big group, but it was even bigger back in the ’30s when my dad (James Mackay) and uncle (Norman Mackay) were out on their big boat. It was a big deal back then,’’ Mackay said. “Back then, before climate change, Lake Superior would lock up with good ice, and there are stories of my dad and uncle going out on the big lake with their big ice boats.”
Mackay said he first noticed the demise of ice boats in Duluth when he came home from service in the U.S. Navy in 1966.
“There were hardly any left by then,’’ he said. “Everyone my age was moving into snowmobiles.”
A half century later, things haven’t changed much.
“I haven’t seen too many new people, or new boats, out for years,’’ Mackay said. “But there are still a few left.”