Photographing on thin ice

Finland - Land of thousand lakes

Our ponds, little streams, lakes and rivers are the source of creation for many photographers throughout the time. Flowing and still water shows itself in a beautiful way when it is half frozen. 

Last night I went to visit Pahtonen, Muonio river. Beautiful half frozen river with running water here and there. Sun has melted the surface of the snow giving it a smooth, reflective texture. Melting rivers are very picturesque. Light is reflected from snow, ice and water, giving a natural HDR feeling in the images. But this was one of the most dangerous places I've been. I want to share with you my expertise on photographing on thin ice.

Remember, whenever you're wandering around on thin ice, you put your life in danger and if something happens, you're the only one to blame.


So to get started, you should know ice in lapland is different throughout the year:

Autumn first freezes clean ice.
Very easy to determine if safe. Ice cover is mostly visible and easy to test the thickness e.g. with an axe, hammer or stone. Solid ice also tends to warn with cracks before breaking.
With proper minus temperatures "steel ice" starts to form. Clean, uniform sees through ice.
-5cm steel ice is enough for a person to walk on
-20cm steel ice is enough for a 2000kg car
If ice is slushy and more like frozen wet snow, be cautious.

Midwinter snow- covered ice
Usually in the Lapland ice cover of lakes is good enough in December. But with changing climates, this is not 100% sure anymore. The easiest way is to find a local and check. Remember that different lakes freeze at different times. During January - April snowmobile and other traffic on the lakes is very common in Lapland. Dangerous places at this time are where lakes turn to rivers and vice versa. These spots can be ice-free throughout the year.

Late spring ice
Spring ice during late April-May is the time when open waters flow next to barges of ice. Some areas might have 100cm strong ice, whereas other places are already free from ice cover. Remember that ice freezes evenly and melts unevenly. 

River ice
Rivers are the hardest to predict, but also the most beautiful to photograph. This is where things get tricky. First of all, know the place. My personal experience is a whitewater raft guide.
I know places by heart from summertime.


Few things to consider when close to rivers during early winter:

Light or no stream vs. class II whitewater
Rivers with little or no stream tend to freeze more uniform. Class I and bigger white waters in winter are definitely a no-no to go walking on! My suggestion is to start visiting half frozen rivers with rubber boots already in the water. This way you avoid too deep spots and minimise the risks of accidents by already taking baby steps in the water. Neoprene gear also works well in cold water.

Knee deep or 2-3m water depth
If you go through the ice. Do you wet your ankles or is there a possibility to submerge completely under the ice?Remember that you will make an ice hole size of your body, nothing bigger or smaller. If your hands are spread your personal ice hole will be around your chest size.

Surface stones or uniform bottom.
Places with surface stones tend to be the most interesting area photography wise. Luckily, these spots are mostly shallow. The stones will freeze first making big "ice drops" around them.
Water also moves in several directions around stones making interesting patterns and guidelines in photos.

Half frozen rivers in spring are one of the-most-dangerous places to photograph. Reason why is the running water that could take you under the thick ice. Imagine taking a last breath and going under the dark ice without any return, scary huh?!  Even a waist deep water has the strength to pull you under, especially on slippery stones. Once under taken by the stream, finding another hole downstream is just wishful thinking.

What to wear?
The Main question is can you swim with it? You should wear thin layers such as thermal underwear and windstopper clothing. Thick jackets soak more water, making movement really hard.

-Go with somebody or at least let somebody know where you’re going
-Make sure you have a good understanding of the area and a backup plan if something happens
-Ice picks hanging on your neck
-Lightweight gear that doesn't soak easily
-Telephone in watertight bag in an easy pocket, preferably chest height. Try to use it with wet fingers and see what happens.
-Keep your tripod folded with maximum length and hold it horizontally when walking.
If you go through the ice, a tripod will spread the weight evenly and give support to climb back.
-Never try to get too close to risky places. No picture is worth of your life.

When to go?
My favourite time is October-November when lakes and rivers start to freeze, there is no snow cover and moving by foot is easy. Reflections from water and wet ice work beautifully day and night. You also have a good idea where is safe and where is wet. 

Early winter frozen world is the time of awe. This the time to go out and photograph. You have a good image where is safe and moving around is easy.

Images I & II Morsiushuntu frozen waterfall, 15km to Norway from Kilpisjärvi.
Image III Äijäkoski whitewater with full moon light and aurora borealis
Image IV Muonioriver with "kohvajää" weak ice where not to go

February winter river in Vuontisjärvi, Muonio. Beautiful snow stones in the middle of dark reflective water in half-moonlight.

Last two photos taken up and downstream from the bridge
Wandering in the middle part of last image is definitely a swim trip. 

October first ice in Pallasjärvi.

Steam on the horizon indicates open waters in cold air. Long, shallow sand beach like this is good to start exploring weak ice.

Midnight light in Pahtonen, Muonioriver in early May.

Normally these conditions are in April. Snow cover melts and freezes between day and night giving a half reflective look. I followed the elevated crack in the ice while walking around. In the last image there is a stone under the crack. Early winter water level continues to drop under solid ice cover. When ice slowly descends, rocks carry the weight. If you look into the crack, you can see 30cm of good ice, which is higher than water level. These are good areas to walk on. Remember going out to places like this requires extra skills and caution.