CHAMPAIGN - It has been cold seemingly for weeks now. Temperatures are expected to dip below zero tonight.
But that doesn't mean that ice on local ponds and lakes is safe for skating just yet, local officials warn. Champaign and Urbana park district ponds and lakes remained closed for ice skating on Wednesday.
However, lakes and ponds under the authority of the Vermilion County Conservation District and the Champaign County Forest Preserve District allow ice fishing and ice skating - on an at-your-own-risk basis.
In Vermilion County, both activities are taking place now at Kennekuk County Park northwest of Danville and at Forest Glen Preserve east of Georgetown, said Mark Pittman, associate director of administration and personnel for the conservation district.
?It's completely and totally at your own risk, and that is the recommendation from our insurance company,? - Pittman said. ?If you tell people it's safe and it's not, you're at huge risk. If you see people out ice-fishing, you can usually assume it's safe for ice skating.?
Pittman said there are about four ponds each in Forest Glen and Kennekuk that are well-suited and used for ice skating.
?A lot of the small ponds freeze up sooner and are more sheltered from the wind and are more fun to skate on,? Pittman said.
Kennekuk County Park is also the home of 170-acre Lake Mingo, where people are currently ice fishing, he said.
Kickapoo State Park near Danville also doesn't test the ice on its 22 lakes and ponds for thickness, said park Site Superintendent John Hott.
?We do have many ice fishermen out there right now,? he said. ?Very seldom do I see anybody ice skating. We see more cross-country skiers.?
Hott said most of the ice on the lakes has a snow covering, which would have to be cleared for ice skating.
A reminder of the dangers of falling through the ice occurred at 8:18 a.m. Wednesday, when Champaign firefighters were called to the south end of Kaufman Lake to investigate a bag or package left on the ice. Champaign police made the call, fearful that an ice fisherman might have fallen through.
?They told us something was out there, and they wanted us to check on it,? said Champaign Fire Department Capt. Dave Ferber. ?Our concern was somebody might have slipped into the water. We wouldn't put our guys at risk otherwise.?
Firefighter Chad Pruitt donned a winter wetsuit, crawled out to the site and found that someone apparently had lit a fire in a can or bucket and melted a 2- or 3-foot-wide hole in the ice on Tuesday.
No one appeared to have fallen through, though Pruitt said he can't be sure.
?I felt around in the hole to see if anything was close,? he said. ?I guess we won't know for sure until the spring.?
Pruitt said he found a tarp, a metal can with charcoal in it, lighter fluid, a propane torch and a throw rug. Neighbors reported seeing a homeless man on the lake Tuesday, he said.
Pruitt found the hole already had closed over with an inch or two of ice. Other areas near the hole had 5 inches of ice, he said, and Pruitt felt secure enough to walk back to the shore.
But the Champaign and Urbana park districts both report that ice isn't thick enough for them to allow ice skating - though it's getting close at Urbana's Crystal Lake Park.
The Champaign Park District doesn't allow ice skating on Kaufman Lake until the ice is at least 8 inches thick, said Dan Schneider, maintenance supervisor with the Champaign Park District.
?We don't open (for skating) every year,? Schneider said. ?We must be 8 inches thick, and that's a substantial thickness.?
Schneider said the thickness threshold is even tougher to reach at Kaufman Lake because the lake is apparently spring-fed in some areas, and those areas tend to ice over more slowly and with thinner ice.
Schneider said the Champaign Park District posts a green-metal sign at four locations indicating whether it's safe to skate. Currently, the sign is red and skating isn't allowed, he said.
Robin Hall, executive director of the Urbana Park District, reports that the ice at Crystal Lake in Crystal Lake Park is almost - but not quite - thick enough to skate on.
?We want 6 inches of ice,? Hall said. ?We're at 5.5 inches at the edges and 4.5 inches in the middle of the pond.?
The Urbana Park District uses an auger to drill through the ice and test thickness, he said.
When the ice becomes thick enough to skate on, Hall said the park district will post the news and announce it on the radio.
?There's been no skating this year,? he said. ?We're awful close. But I'd be careful getting on the ice right now.?
The Champaign County Forest Preserve District does not test the ice for thickness and allows people to skate or ice-fish at their own risk, said Dan Olson, the forest preserve's assistant director of natural resources.
Olson said people have been skating at Lake of the Woods Lake near Mahomet. The forest preserve also is home to Homer Lake at the Salt Fork Forest Preserve and has three small ponds at the Middle Fork Forest Preserve near Penfield.
The new River Bend Forest Preserve near south Mahomet has at least two deep spring-fed lakes that were gravel quarries. Those lakes don't tend to freeze over, he said.