Photos: In defiance of winter, Duluthians skate the 'People's Rink' on frozen Superior


Ansel Cazier skates on Lake Superior with his friend George Belmore.
1 Ansel Cazier (right) skates on Lake Superior with his friend George Belmore (left) at sunset Thursday. 
Jim Richardson, known as Lake Superior Aquaman, poses for a portrait.
2 Jim Richardson poses for a portrait with his trident Thursday on the skating rink he shoveled off the surface of Lake Superior in Duluth. Richardson is an artist, a writer and a photographer. Around Duluth, he's known as Lake Superior Aquaman for the underwater videos he shoots.

"Some of this is just my own sheer unleashed mania at being cooped up and depressed in the winter of this town, which can go on long and be intense," he said of the project.
 
George Belmore and Ansel Cazier make the trek from Leif Erikson Park.
3 George Belmore (left) and Ansel Cazier make the trek from Leif Erikson Park out to the rink Thursday.

Jim Richardson set out a couple weeks ago to forge a skating path on Lake Superior partly out of a selfish desire to skate on the big lake while also providing an outlet for people to have an adventure during this seemingly relentless winter.

He created a similar rink five years ago, the last time the lake froze hard, but it was smaller, and closer to shore. So he knew there might be good ice under the snow again this year. He just had to find it.

"I was walking and found this patch of skateable ice down here, and it was right in front of the Leif Erickson Park stage," he said. "So I'm like, there's my landmark. Let's just do this."

So he started shoveling, looking for places where the wind had blown some of the snow off the ice, which by now is 18 inches thick.
 
Hattie MacLean gets some skating tips from Malory Schaefbauer.
4 Hattie MacLean (left) gets some skating tips from Malory Schaefbauer Thursday on Lake Superior. The "People's Free Skate Rink" has served as a spot for people to congregate and hang out. There have been performances by local musicians like Robot Rickshaw and fire spinners.

"I'm not sure when it will ever happen again," Hattie's mom, Lynn MacLean, said. That's because, as winters have steadily warmed, Lake Superior isn't freezing like it used to.
 
Lynn MacLean, Hattie MacLean, Finn MacLean and Mark MacLean take a break.
5 From left, Lynn MacLean, Hattie MacLean, Finn MacLean and Mark MacLean enjoy hot chocolate while taking a break from skating Thursday.

"It's pretty amazing! It's a magical out here, I love it," Lynn MacLean said. The rink, she added, captures the spirit of her hometown. "You've got to embrace winter in Duluth. You shouldn't live here if you don't embrace winter. Wow. It would be such a long season if you hated it."
 
Katie Sandell (right) bows to Jim Richardson.
6 Katie Sandell (right) bows to Jim Richardson Thursday at the People's Free Skate Rink on Lake Superior. Also known as Lake Superior Aquaman, Richardson was the visionary behind the rink.

That this rink is able to exist is becoming more and more rare: From 1973 to 2010, annual average ice coverage on Lake Superior declined by nearly 80 percent.

"Prior to 1998, we had a lot of years with relatively heavy ice cover," said Jay Austin, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth's Large Lakes Observatory. "And since 1998 really 2009, 2014 and this year, are the only years where there was above average ice coverage."

There will still be years with low ice, like the last couple years, and years with a lot of ice, like this year, Austin said.
 
The People's Free Skate Rink is visible from Leif Erikson Park.
7 The People's Free Skate Rink is visible from Duluth's Leif Erikson Park Thursday. About a quarter-mile offshore, the rink offers a zig-zagging path of ice to skate on while also serving a place for people to congregate and hang out. 
Jim Richardson clears snow from the People's Free Skate Rink.
8 Jim Richardson clears snow from the People's Free Skate Rink Thursday.

Friends and strangers have pitched in with the shoveling.

"It's a maze, kind of," he said. "It's got islands, open spaces, tendrils that shoot out into the snow. You kind of just explore it find your own path."
 
Mark MacLean (right) helps his son Finn MacLean (left) learn how to skate.
9 Mark MacLean (right) helps his son Finn MacLean (left) learn how to skate Thursday on the surface of Lake Superior. "How many people can say they learned how to skate on Lake Superior?" Mark MacLean said.

The opportunity is a special one. The average winter temperature in the state has risen by about 1 degree per decade since the 1970s.

That might not seem like much, but Lake Superior is especially sensitive to small changes in climate.

"The really interesting, and maybe troubling, thing is that the difference between a high ice year like 2009 and a low ice year can be due to a difference in air temperature, averaged over the winter of 1 to 2 degrees Celsius, or 3 or 4 degrees Fahrenheit," said Jay Austin, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth's Large Lakes Observatory.
 
Duluth's Aerial Lift Bridge is visible from the People's Free Skate Rink.
10 It seems otherworldy out here, at sunset on Thursday. The snow-drenched ice stretches forever, like a great, white desert, with Duluth's Aerial Lift Bridge visible in the distance. 
Jim Richardson skates during sunset at the People's Free Skate Rink.
11 Jim Richardson skates during sunset with his trident along a path at the People's Free Skate Rink Thursday.

There's a good chance Duluthians may not get a chance to skate on the big lake again for a few years. So Richardson invited his fellow Duluthians out to the rink for one more party Friday night, before yet another winter storm is forecast to hit.