As winter descends across the Midwest, the prospect of ice surfing on the frozen waters of the Missouri River becomes a reality. This thrilling niche sport sees hardy adventurers take to specially designed boards and “ride” icy river waves and swell. Read on for everything you need to know about Missouri River ice surfing.
What is Ice Surfing?
Ice surfing originated as an offshoot of more traditional wave surfing. Using custom made boards with special pegged blades or fins for traction, ice surfers “ride” waves and swell formations on frozen inland lakes and rivers in cold weather destinations.
Rivers like the Missouri provide ideal terrain for this adventurous winter sport, as moving currents beneath the ice create undulations akin to ocean surf. Ice surfers drift downstream while carving back and forth across these frozen “waves”.
It provides a unique way to experience Midwestern rivers and lakes in wintertime. The added traction and flotation allows riders to traverse the frozen waters safely while replicating wave riding motions.
How to Ice Surf on the Missouri River
From eastern Montana through the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa, and into Missouri, sections of the Missouri River develop reliable ice surfing conditions each winter. Here’s what you need to know:
Find Ideal Ice Conditions – Look for portions of the river with 4 to 8 inches of transparent, blue ice free from air pockets or thin spots. Avoid snow-covered or “frazil” ice.
Scan for Wave Features – Seek out ice with intriguing shapes – bumps, ridges, and undulations caused by current burbling create rideable “waves”.
Gather Proper Gear – Use a specialized ice board with front/rear pegged fins for control and rubber boots with spikes for traction. Wear a survival suit or drysuit in case you break through.
Check Ice Thickness – Drill test holes every 100-200 yards to verify adequate stable ice depth and look for current. Don’t surf on moving ice or where it hasn’t set.
Buddy Up – Never ice surf alone. Have partners ready to assist and call emergency services if needed.
Surf Safely – Keep away from open water, stay low to distribute weight, and don’t take needless risks on uncertain or untested ice.
Where to Go Ice Surfing on the Missouri River
Popular ice surfing access points and sections along the Missouri include:
Upper Missouri – Montana/North Dakota – Fort Peck Lake near the Missouri’s origin.
Bismarck, ND – Areas north and south of town. Gentle river slope creates fun waves.
Lake Oahe, SD – Big reservoir with miles of ice above Pierre.
Yankton, SD – Downstream of the Gavins Point Dam. Shoreline access.
Sioux City, IA – Upstream of the converged Big and Little Sioux Rivers.
Omaha, NE – Along riverfront parks and access points. Watch for bridges.
Kansas City, MO – By the Fairfax Riverside access at the I-635 bridge.
Check river ice conditions before heading out. Beware spring thaws that weaken ice integrity.
Ideal Conditions for Ice Surfing
Certain conditions make for the best and safest Missouri River ice surfing:
- Air Temperature – Highs in the 20°Fs or lower ensure thick, stable ice formation. Warmer temps deteriorate integrity.
- Water Temperature – Colder water below 40°F prevents frazil ice from developing underwater.
- Ice Depth – Target 6 inches, but at least 4 inches consistently. Test thickness as you go.
- Ice Color – Optimal clear blue or turquoise ice is safe vs. opaque or snow-covered ice.
- Cloud Cover – Sunny skies strengthen ice after cold nights. Cloudy days weaken ice.
- Current – Look for visible current keeping water from freezing solid. Moving water forms “waves”.
- Wind – Light wind reduces chop. Sustained high winds deteriorate ice surfaces.
- Weather – Avoid rapid warmup periods with precipitation which quickly deteriorates ice.
Ice Surfing Technique and Safety
Mastering ice surfing technique takes practice. Follow these tips to stay safe while improving your skills:
- Start small – Begin with gentle slopes or small bumps to get used to balancing and edging on ice.
- Edge control – Tip board on edge to slice a turn across the ice face. Subtle weight distribution shifts help initiate turns.
- Absorb bumps – Allow knees to flex to absorb impacts on ice ridges and bumps. Keep center balanced.
- Sit back – Leaning slightly back helps keep board tips engaged. Counterintuitively avoid leaning downhill.
- Use edges – Let fin edges dig into the ice like a snowboard to control speed and create traction for maneuvering.
- Buddy system – Always ice surf with a partner equipped with rope, ice picks and flotation. Stay within range.
- Wear protection – Use helmet, knee pads, wrist guards, and spine protector to absorb falls.
Ice Surfing Equipment Needed
Specialized gear helps maximize enjoyment and safety while ice surfing:
- Ice surfboard – Shorter board around 3-4’ with front and rear metal-pegged fins to engage the ice. Often homemade.
- Boots – Insulated rubber boots with integrated spikes for traction when walking on ice.
- Survival suit – Full waterproof suit with gloves, hood, and boots to stay afloat if submerged in frigid water.
- Helmet – Protects head from injury if you fall on ice.
- Ice picks – Carried in case you need to pull yourself out of water onto unbroken ice.
- Flotation – Life jacket or inflatable belt/suspenders provide flotation if submerged.
- Ice thickness probe – Essential for checking depth and integrity as you traverse the ice
- Rope – For pulling surfers from waters or probing ice depth from shore.
Ice Surfing Safety Tips
Ice surfing entails inherent risks that require proper precautions:
- Know ice conditions – Verify adequate thickness and look for visual cues of unsafe ice like open water, cracks, and slushy texture.
- Use the buddy system – Never surf alone. Have a partner ashore ready to call emergency help if needed.
- Wear a flotation suit – Full water protection keeps you afloat for hours if submerged in frigid water while help arrives.
- Carry ice picks – Picks allow self-rescue by pulling yourself out of open water onto thicker, intact ice nearby.
- Avoid shoreline ice – Ice close to shore is weaker. Stay nearer the center of the river.
- Watch for springs – Beware spots where warmer groundwater wells up, weakening ice stability.
- Have rescue/survival gear – Carry rope, floats, emergency blankets and spare dry clothes in your vehicle in case of submersion.
Beginning Ice Surfing
Interested in trying ice surfing? Follow these tips to get started safely as a beginner:
- Take a lesson – Find experienced mentors or guides in places like Montana and the Dakotas to teach proper technique.
- Start small – Build skills on gentle, low angled ice bumps and slopes before attempting steep waves.
- Master balance – Practice edging, weight distribution, and balance stationary on a board before surfing.
- Know your gear – Ensure your equipment is designed specifically for ice use before depending on it. Practice using ice picks and ropes.
- Dress very warmly – Insulated, waterproof survival suit, gloves, boots, and helmet are essential.
- Bring rescue items – Have flotation, spikes, picks, rope nearby on shore not just on your person.
- Find safe ice – Only surf on verified thick, stable ice. Check and recheck depth as you go.
- Go with others – Never surf alone your first times out. Have experienced mentors for learning and safety.
Popular Ice Surfing Destinations
Beyond the Missouri River, popular ice surfing destinations include:
- Lake Superior, Minnesota – Enormous open expanses of ice with swell. Access from Duluth.
- Sand Creek, Minnesota – Parabolic river shape creates icy “waves”.
- Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin – Massive inland lake surfed near Oshkosh.
- Lake Michigan – Surfed off beaches like Stony Creek in Michigan when frozen.
- Lake Champlain, Vermont – Burlington area offers New England ice surfing from shore.
- Matanuska River, Alaska – Southcentral AK hotspot among Alaska’s many ice surf options.
Competitive Ice Surfing Events
Ice surfing continues to grow as a niche winter sport, spurring competitive events across the northern US:
- Mt. Hood Big Air Ice Surfing Competition – Oregon’s annual event held on timber lake ice features big air contests.
- Minnesota Ice Surfing Festival – Sand Creek hosts this gathering of Midwest wave riders in wintertime.
- Alaska Ice Surfing Championships – Veteran ice surfers convene to crown Alaska’s top riders each March near Anchorage.
- Duluth Ice Surfing Classic – On the world’s largest freshwater lake, surfers compete at Minnesota Point.
- Midwest Ice Surfing Championships – Multiple venues across the region like Lake Koshkonong in Wisconsin.
- Red Bull Ice Surfing – The energy drink hosts events on rivers and lakes spotlighting daring riders.
These contests feature pros performing stunning aerial maneuvers far beyond riding bumps and swell formations.
Culture and Community
Despite its small participant numbers currently, ice surfing boasts a passionate community populated by daring winter water lovers.
It joins other emerging niche winter action sports like snowkiting, fat tire biking, and ice climbing that make the most of northern latitude cold season conditions.
Don’t expect to see crowds surfing the Missouri River ice – yet. But among its growing community are devotees committed to exploring and advancing techniques for riding waves in their frozen backyard.
For Midwesterners, the frozen expanse of the Missouri River paradoxically provides opportunity for wave riding thrills amid the cold depths of winter. Though still an obscure niche sport, ice surfing offers exciting new ways to interact with the region’s waters.
With proper precautions and gear, hopeful wave riders can experience the magnificence of rivers like the Missouri in an entirely new way once conditions conspire to lock them in ice. Despite the risks inherent, the allure of surfing waves far from any ocean draws the adventurous to brave the cold.
So as autumn’s last leaves blow away in winter’s chill wind, dream of taking on the swells and ridges that only hardened Missouri River ice can provide. Anticipate carving icy ridges under endless Midwest skies, enjoying your own private surf session on waters gone quiet and still amid the cold.
Frequently Asked Questions
How thick does ice need to be for ice surfing?
Target at least 6 inches of transparent, blue ice. Anything less than 4 inches is unsafe and riskier for beginners. Check and recheck depth across the area.
What kind of board is used?
Specialty short boards around 3-4 ft. long with metal fins to grip the ice. Modified wakeboards also work. Regular surfboards don’t have the necessary traction.
How are ice surf boards made?
Custom boards are handmade using marine ply and epoxy resin to withstand the cold. Fins use tipped metal spikes and toe straps aid edging leverage.
Is ice surfing dangerous?
Yes, falling through thin ice into freezing water is extremely hazardous. Full survival suits and flotation devices are mandatory along with other precautions. Never surf alone.
Where is ice surfing most popular?
It originated around Duluth, Minnesota but now Alaska, Northern New England, the Great Lakes and the Midwest all have active scenes.
Can you ice surf in the ocean?
Rarely areas like the Baltic Sea will freeze enough for ice surfing, but most ocean ice is too unstable. Inland lakes and rivers offer safer terrain.
How fast can you go ice surfing?
Speeds vary based on conditions but riders can reach 20-30 mph drifting with the river current, amplifying the thrill!
How cold is too cold for ice surfing?
Around or below 0°F becomes too dangerous for extended exposure. Otherwise insulated suits allow surfing below freezing down to roughly -20°F ambient temps.
Is ice surfing allowed on any frozen river?
No, most locations prohibit it for safety reasons. Research regulations and only surf legally sanctioned stretches. Avoid private property.
Are there competitions for ice surfing?
Yes, both formal and informal contests are held to judge riders on style and technique at spots like the Duluth Ice Surfing Classic and more.