How long will it take for a car to fall through ice? Make a bet for this Minn. tradition

For 10 years, the Cass Lake Lions have taken bets on the car going through.
For the last 10 years, the Cass Lake Lions Club has dragged this Ford Escort out onto the lake and taken bets on when it would fall through.
John Enger | MPR News

A few days ago while driving down U.S. Highway 2, I spotted a rusty red Ford Escort parked out on the ice of Cass Lake.

It caught my eye because I'd seen it before, last winter. Then, I assumed someone broke down on the lake too late in the season to risk towing it off by truck. But two winters running — something else had to be going on.

I decided to check it out, and Tom Prosser provided some clues.

"It has no engine, or transmission," Prosser said. "There's no battery, no pollutants. There's nothing in the gas tank if the gas tank is still there."

Prosser explained it's out on the ice as part of a Lions Club fundraiser. For the last 10 winters, he and a few other club members have dragged that car out onto the ice, and taken bets on when it will fall through.

And they have to be exact. After all, people are laying money on this.

Tom Prosser came up with the car through ice fundraiser 10 years ago.
Tom Prosser came up with the car through ice fundraiser 10 years ago. This Ford Escort is stripped of its engine, transmission, battery and anything that could be toxic.
John Enger | MPR News

"We hashed it over, 'How are we going to tell?' said Prosser. "I made a frame for two battery-powered clocks. When the batteries hit the water they're dead. We pull the clocks out, take a look, and we know what time it went down."

Prosser said these types of fundraisers used to be more common. He got the idea more than 20 years ago when he saw a Volkswagen Beetle parked on a frozen lake in Wisconsin. He can't remember if was a Lion's club thing, or maybe the Elks.

It's far more complicated now. They need special permission from the county and the DNR. And they have to strip the car of anything that might be toxic. They also have to pull the thing out every spring.

People used to just leave the cars down there. But now they hook a cable to the car's frame and drag it back up on shore once the ice melts.

About a mile down the road from where the car is parked, two Lion's club members sell tickets at a table set up inside Teal's Grocery store.

It's not always an easy sell. Lani Greenway calls after a middle-aged guy pushing a cart, "We got a car on the ice. You want to buy a chance on when it falls through? It's worth $300!"

Lani Greenway sells tickets in Teal’s Grocery store.
Lani Greenway sells tickets in Teal's Grocery store about a mile from where the car is parked.
John Enger | MPR News

The guy pretends he doesn't hear. So does another guy who comes in after him. A woman reports she doesn't have any cash.

"You gotta ask everybody that comes in," said Greenway. "If I can get them to the table I can get them."

It's actually a pretty successful fundraiser for the Lions. They've raised a few thousand dollars this year. Half pays for free eye exams for kids at the local middle school. The other half is paid out in prizes to the four people who get closest to the day, hour, and minute when the thawing ice gives way.

And even I eventually cave in to the pitch. I shell out $3 for three tickets.

That was early in the day on Wednesday.

Prosser told me there was still more than a foot of ice under the Escort. He showed me his tickets. His guesses were all in mid-April, mostly late at night or early in the morning when there's a strong wind.

I guessed about the same.

"The thing you got to realize is, you're going against Mother Nature," said Greenway, after I ask about my odds. "If she don't like you, it's not going to work."

Turns out, she didn't like me much. The Escort fell through the ice late Wednesday. I was off by more than two weeks.

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