Kayaking Through Winter Sea Ice

Winter kayaking opens up new worlds to paddle through. The ice changes the shoreline from just-another-sand-beach to towering cliffs of ice chuck full of caves. This is especially true on large bodies of water that produce sea ice, like the oceans and the Great Lakes. Not only is ice interesting to look at, but it also has fascinating names, such as grease ice, pack ice, bergy bits, frazil ice and my favorite, because it looks cool and sounds delicious, pancake ice. Next time you kayak through ice, think about the fun names and become a winter-ice geek by using them.

Read more about Winter Kayaking. And remember, winter kayaking is extremely dangerous. Only attempt it if you know what you’re doing and have the right gear. You could die out there.

Sea Ice Definitions

The following definitions and pictures include some of the more common types of sea ice encountered while kayaking. All the definitions come from the Naval Environmental Prediction Research Facility’s Forecasters Handbook for the Arctic, Appendix A: Glossary of Ice Terms.

Paddling through anchor ice in the Grand Marais harbor.
Paddling through GROUNDED ICE in the Grand Marais harbor. GROUNDED ICE is floating ice that is aground in shoal water.

BERGY BIT: A large piece of floating glacier ice, generally showing less than 16 feet  above sea level but more than 3 feet and normally about 120 to 360 square yards in area.

BRASH ICE: Accumulations of floating ice made up of fragments not more than 6.5 feet across, the wreckage of other forms of ice.

FLAW: A narrow separation zone between pack ice and fast ice, where the pieces of ice are in a chaotic state; it forms when pack ice shears under the effect of a strong wind or current along the fast ice boundary.

FAST ICE: Sea ice that forms and remains fast along the coast, where it is attached to the shore, to an ice wall, to an ice front, between shoals or grounded icebergs. If it is thicker than about 7 feet above sea level, it is called an ice shelf.

Kayaking in an area of open pack ice.
Kayaking in an area of OPEN PACK ICE, which is an area 4/10 to 6/10 covered by ice.

FLOE: Any relatively flat, isolated piece of sea ice 65 feet or more across. Floes are subdivided according to horizontal extent as follows:

GIANT: over 5.5 nautical miles
VAST: 1-5.5 nautical miles
BIG: 550-2200 yards
MEDIUM: 110-550 yards
SMALL: 22-110 yards

FRAZIL ICE: Fine spicules, or plates of ice, suspended in water.

GREASE ICE: A later stage of freezing than frazil ice. It occurs when the crystals have coagulated to form a soupy layer on the surface. Grease ice reflects little light, giving the sea a matte appearance.

GROWLER: Smaller piece of ice than a bergy bit, often transparent but appearing green or almost black in color. Usually extends less than 3 feet above the sea surface and normally occupies an area of about 24 square yards.

kayak in winter on Lake Superior's shore
Kayak sitting on FAST ICE looking out over CLOSE PACK ICE to OPEN WATER. Lots of PANCAKE ICE between shore and open water.

ICEBERG: A massive piece of ice of greatly varying shape, more than 16 feet above sea level, which has broken away from a glacier, and which may be afloat or aground. Icebergs may be described as tabular, dome-shaped, sloping, pinnacled, weathered, or glacier bergs.

ICE CAKE: Any relatively flat piece of sea ice less than 22 yard across.

NILAS: A thin, elastic crust of ice bending easily on waves and swell. Nilas has a matte surface and is up to 4 inches thick.

PACK ICE: Term used in a wide sense to include any area of sea ice, other than fast ice, no matter what form it takes or how it is disposed.

PANCAKE ICE: Predominantly circular pieces of ice from 1 to 10 feet in diameter and up to about 4 inches in thickness, with raised rims due to the pieces striking against one another. It may be formed on a slight swell from grease ice, shuga, or slush, or as a result of the breaking of ice rind, nilas, or, under severe conditions of swell or waves, of gray ice.

Paths Through the Ice

Kayak landed on floating ice.
Kayak landed on SMALL ICE CAKE.

Most of the time while kayaking around sea ice, the path leads through areas of open or very open pack ice. Open pack ice has between 4/10 and 6/10 ice coverage, and very open pack ice has between 1/10 and 3/10 ice coverage. While difficult, it’s possible to push through close and very close pack ice. Close pack ice is between 7/10 and 8/10 ice covered and very close is between 9/10 and 10/10 covered. In the later cases, finding a way through the ice by following a lead is the best option.

LEAD: Any fracture or passageway through sea ice that is navigable by surface vessels.

SHORE LEAD: A lead between pack ice and the shore or between pack ice and an ice front.

Watch Out for These Ice Conditions

A couple of conditions, other than the extreme cold, created concern. There’s always a chance at becoming beset, which means journey might switch from kayaking to stumbling, swimming and hiking. And when something calves it can create a large set of waves.

BESET: Situation of a vessel surrounded by ice and unable to move.

CALVING: The breaking away of a mass of ice from an ice wall, ice front, or iceberg.

Icy Kayaking Reading List

It’s seriously fun paddling through an icy landscape, and icy landscapes make for great adventure stories. These three books capture icy adventure at its best and most difficult.

A Kayaking Video in the Ice

Here’s a short video of kayaking in the Grand Marais harbor around GROUNDED ICE. New report on winter kayaking. Watch it here.

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