21 Feb 2018

Winter Ice at Your Muskoka Cottage

We all know the quote from Shakespeare is actually “double double toil and trouble,” but those who do not want the “double trouble” of ice damage on their docks are likely to look into installing a bubbler or agitator system to protect waterfront structures at their Muskoka cottage.

If that is you, be warned that there are some serious considerations to make before you decide whether to install one. And if you do, it’s important to know how to properly manage it.

The decision to install a bubbler or agitator is often made based solely on protecting the often very large investment made in creating wonderful docks and boat house structures at the shoreline or our waterfront properties. We have all heard the stories of the dangers a dock bubbler has on people, snowmobilers, and even pets. Transport Canada has this on its site: “Note: The action of safeguarding the ice and the hole that is created is a criminal code responsibility. It falls under the Criminal Code under “Duty to safeguard opening in ice”. Any questions regarding the marking of the opening in the ice should be directed to your local OPP detachment.”

In addition, did you know that while a bubbler is protecting your property, there are many instances in which a dock bubbler can cause intense damage to a neighbour’s dock and boathouse? This is not only going to cause an issue with your neighbour, but it also adds to the wooden debris on the open water resulting in a hazardous situation for boaters. There is an increasing amount of evidence that using a bubbler/agitator has a negative effect on hibernating animals in the area and by keeping large areas of water open and subject to the warming effect of the winter sun, it is thought that overall lake temperatures will increase, affecting the whole eco system of the lakes.

The purpose of a bubbler or agitator is to create an open water buffer between the structure and expanding/contracting ice. A five-foot ribbon of open water or thin ice around the front and down the sides of the dock is usually all that is necessary to minimize damage from contraction and expansion. Satellite images of the lakes in Muskoka reveal that many systems are keeping more than twenty feet of water open and in some smaller bays, where several owners have systems, the entire bay is being kept open. What you may not know is that, using a bubbler won’t help is during spring break-up. This is when the majority of severe damage occurs. Ice usually melts around the shoreline first, which means that most lakes will have a 20 to 50 feet open area around the shore. Nothing is going to prevent huge slab of 5” thick ice moving at 1 mph from doing severe damage to you dock at this stage…no matter how many bubbles are still blowing. So if it’s a windy day when the ice starts to break-up and move around, it sometimes comes down to a matter of luck.

The decision to create some rules for the use of bubblers has been made at the Township of Lake of Bays. Muskoka Lakes and other area Townships are in the process of deciding on what rules and method of enforcement they will put in place. It is very difficult for our Townships to enforce anything at all as the legal mechanism for enforcement of activities on a waterway is not part of their mandate.

Here are some “Best Practices” for the use of a bubbler/agitator system taken from a list created by the Lake of Bays Association for its members.

1. Place/angle your device properly. If an agitator is used, be aware that angling it toward the shore directs the flow inwards and not out into the lake, minimizing the amount of open water created.

2. Install a timer and/or thermostat. Operating your ice-away device 24/7 from fall to spring can result in excessive open water. Eight to 12 hours per day is usually sufficient at Lake of Bays to maintain an appropriate amount of open water around your structure. Using a timer and/or thermostatic switch also reduces energy consumption and saves you money. Unnecessary running time can also be controlled by setting a thermostat control that switches the device off if the air temperature is above freezing.

3. Mark open water with warning signs / lights display signage to alert others to the potential danger of open water. These red and white signs are available at most hardware stores in the area or where ice-away devices are sold. However, signs will not prevent animals from falling in; some property owners also put yellow warning tape and fencing around the open water. At night, the snowmobile community recommends displaying a flashing amber light because it signifies caution. A red light can be mistaken for the taillight of another snowmobile and bright white strobe lights are offensive to neighbours.

4. Monitor your property. If you are not using your property in the winter, have it checked periodically to ensure your ice away-device is working properly and that your warning sign(s) and lighting are in place. Turn your device off when / if the water levels are lowered in your lake (usually March).

5. Be ice smart. No ice is without risk. Snowmobilers, skiers, skaters and hikers should exercise caution while on the ice and stay well clear of docks and boathouses. It is clear there will be more debate on this matter and we hope we have informed you a little.

Here’s another article on the subject: To Bubble or Not to Bubble, from the Muskoka Lakes Association.