Blue skies and bitter cold are creating ideal ice skating conditions around Lake Tahoe. Skaters have been gliding over frozen ponds, rivers and lakes throughout the region, but the U.S. Forest Service is warning people of the dangers posed by skating on open water.
"It's been huge," said Steven Rooney, who works operations at the South Tahoe Ice Arena and coaches the 10 and under squirt hockey team. "My team has actually gone out to Baron Lake, Sawmill Pond and Caples Lake."
South Lake Tahoe resident Jacob Ells took a trip to Echo Lake last weekend for some skating with friends. He'd bought a pair of classic Bauer hockey skates at a thrift store for $5 and was just waiting for an opportunity to use them.
"It was a true winter experience," Ells said. "I've never seen it like that."
Looking down into the ice, suspended bubbles could be seen more than 8 inches below the surface. Drifts of snow had piled onto the lake and the slick crust had small wrinkles and cracks. As the ice shifted, heavy gong-like groans emanated from the lake.
"It was like a whomping sound, a deep bass whomp," Ells said. "I was scared. It was the first time I'd been on a frozen lake. I didn't know how thick it had to be."
Though a little rougher than rink ice, the lake surfaces are actually harder and better for hockey than the arena, Rooney said.
"It's nice skating on the ponds," he said. "The puck bounces faster. It makes you a better player."
Though skaters have been spotted on numerous frozen bodies of water, backcountry ice skating is not recommended by the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
"I know that people do do it," said spokeswoman Lisa Herron. "We don't recommend it because it's very dangerous."
Ice skating on frozen lakes is legal, but with warmer temperatures recently, the ice may not be thick enough, said Suzanne Johnson, who works in visitors services for the Forest Service. Johnson saw water around the edges of Echo Lake during a recent visit, which indicates the ice isn't too thick, she said.
"I'm really surprised that we haven't heard of any incidents," Johnson said. "We've heard people have heard cracking around them. It could be very hazardous or life threatening if you fall through."