Pancake Ice

Would you like some syrup with your Lake Superior Pancake Ice?

Unlike regular pancakes made with flour and buttermilk, pancake ice is formed when surface slush thickens and swirls caused by a current or light wind, a process known as rafting. The circular pads of ice form anywhere from 1-10 feet in diameter, and up to 4 inches thick. That’s a big pancake.

A signature feature of Lake Superior’s pancake ice is its raised edges on the perimeter which is caused by continued crashes into one another from the waves.


Recipe for Lake Suprior Pancake Ice

The process begins in calm waters when frazil crystals float to the surface. They accumulate and bond together forming a thin sheet of ice that appears similar to an oil slick. The “grease” then swirls in the water and forms the familiar pancake-shaped ice. When the weather gets extremely cold, pancake ice forms quickly. Also, they can be gone just as fast, as the pancakes will freeze together creating a sheet of ice.

As the air warms up even further, the ice will slowly break apart. If the wind picks up and waves start pushing the ice towards shore, ice shelves form. Ice shelves are another beautiful natural phenomenon here on the North Shore.


Where and When to See Lake Superior Pancake Ice

Lake Superior Pancake ice typically forms when the temperature is between 20 and 32 degrees, as it is cold enough to form ice, but not cold enough to create a sheet of ice on the lake. Typically, we see these formations during the months of February through early-April. January is usually too cold and April gets too warm. Usually. The weather on the North Shore can be unpredictable!

The best places to see pancake ice formations are in North Shore bays (e.g. Agate Beach, Burlington Bay, Flood Bay, Beaver Bay, Good Harbor Bay, etc).  Another favorite spot to observe the pancake ice is the Grand Marais Harbor and the waters around Arists’ Point. In fact, in the winter of 2021, visitor’s to Grand Marais saw more than just pancake ice in the harbor…


Deer Rescued in Grand Marais Harbor

On the afternoon of January 2, 2021, a deer was strolling along the breakwall near the Grand Marais Lighthouse. Startled by an approaching human and his dog, the deer decided to jump into the harbor. However, thick pancake ice sheets prevented the deer from reaching the shore. Luckily, the deer was able to take refuge on a chunk of pancake ice, and there they stayed. All night and into the morning of January 3, numerous calls came into the Cook County Sheriff’s Department from citizens concerned about the deer.

The deer was most likely fine. Even being outside in the cold on a sheet of pancake ice in the middle of the Grand Marais Harbor, deer are accustomed to this sort of scenario. But the growing crowds had the DNR concerned that the deer may not make it to shore due to fear of the people. So two Conservation Officers assisted in getting the deer to shore and back to the safety of solid earth.

Click here to read more about the deer rescue.

Usually, Lake Superior pancake ice does not come with a deer on top. Or any other animal for the matter.  But, it’s a lovely sight and something even locals look forward to seeing in the winter months.