Heading Outdoors: navigating the ice road on Lake Winnebago

10-mile road only open when weather is right

OSHKOSH, WI -- Wisconsin is filled with unique opportunities that come and go with the seasons.

On Lake Winnebago, neighbors just started taking advantage of a near 10-mile road that can only happen when temperatures plummet and the conditions are just right.
At the Merritt St. landing in Oshkosh, portable ice bridges are helping cars and trucks clear massive cracks in the ice near shore.
"Well, we put the bridges out Saturday," says Don Herman, who many simply consider the "ice master" of Lake Winnebago. "Warm weather could wreck this," he adds. 
Once over the bridge, drivers are connected to more than a foot of ice along this particular stretch of Lake Winnebago--from the west shoreline, to the east. 
"And we'll plow it, you know," says Herman. "If it snows, we'll keep this road plowed." 
The road Herman is talking about isn't marked by traditional lanes. But it will take you through a community that can go from a few dozen neighbors, to a small city of 5,000 ice fishermen on a good weekend.
"My father brought me out here back when I was probably 9 or 10," says ice fisherman Mike Rieden, who has been using the road for 30 years.
Rieden was spending his Monday locating schools of hungry white bass below the ice's surface.
"Today is just kind of 'run and gun,' and hunt and poke around," says Rieden, with one fresh bass already on the ice, "and see if you can find a school that's active and feeding. I try to stay away from the crowds that you'll see out in the middle, and out to the other sides. I like to do my own thing," he adds, smiling. "It's more relaxing that way." 
Herman, of Otter Street Fishing Club, and SUNK? Dive and Ice Service, has been monitoring Lake Winnebago's ice for more than 40 years. 
The bridges and the road are the coordinated efforts of seven fishing clubs.
"Take your seatbelt off, crack your window," says Herman, which is advice for all drivers to take before heading out on the ice in a car or truck in case a vehicle breaks through, "you know, pay attention." 
Herman says the road is also popular with commuters who live on one side of Winnebago and work on the other. 
"It'll save them 45 minutes," says Herman, "and they will [use it]. if you come at 6 o'clock in the morning, you'll see [the cars]."    
But Herman warns it only takes a little wind and snow to create whiteout conditions on the ice road. Christmas trees popping out of the ice along the ice road may seem a bit out of place, but for commuters and ice fishermen alike, they could be all the difference in a blinding snowstorm. 
Herman places one tree every 10th of a mile in a line, spanning 9.6 miles--from Merritt St., to the Quinney landing.
"The trees.. when they're standing up, you know that marks the road," says Herman, "and, when you see one laying down someplace, that's pretty much telling you to stay away." 
Herman says think of it like old-school GPS. 
"Those trees probably saved some lives over the years," adds Herman.
Lake Winnebago's ice road is a concept some are more comfortable with than others.
But for thousands of Wisconsinites, and plenty of visitors, it's a main artery to a way of life that starts by heading outdoors.


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