Published January 7, 2024

Latest Freeze Watch for Sakakawea 

Written by
Kim Fundingsland
| The Dakotan
Open water on Garrison Bay at Lake Sakakawea State Park is shown in this December 28, 2023, image. (Photo: Kim Fundingsland/The Dakotan)
Open water on Garrison Bay at Lake Sakakawea State Park is shown in this December 28, 2023, image. (Photo: Kim Fundingsland/The Dakotan)

A Slice of Life 

When the big water freezes is something that has captured my attention as long as I can remember. By big water, I’m talking about Lake Sakakawea, which is actually a reservoir. 

Garrison Dam, Lake Sakakawea, call it what you want. By any name it is North Dakota’s largest body of water and a major attraction in our state, particularly in the spring and summer. Camping, swimming, boating, fishing – you name it. 

It is a kind of a measuring stick too for what kind of winter North Dakota experiences each year. Maybe that’s why when Sakakawea freezes over and when it thaws out in the spring has always been a curiosity for me.  

This winter season began with a dump of snow early but then, as the warming influence of El Nino began to take hold, our winter took a real slap in the face. Hoorah! That is, of course, unless you are one who can’t wait for winter’s arrival. 

December of 2023 in North Dakota proved to be one of the most pleasant in recorded history. Minot had 12 days in December in which the daytime high temperature exceeded 40 degrees and two more over 50 degrees. Our average high temperature in December was 38 degrees and the temperature never got below zero. Other locales in the state experienced similar temperatures, hardly the kind of weather for making ice on an impoundment as large as Lake Sakakawea and a monstrous change from December 2022 that averaged a mere 8 degrees, 20 degrees less than in the recent December. 

Canada geese enjoy a pleasant afternoon on the ice covering a portion of a small bay on Lake Sakakawea. December 28, 2023, photograph. (Photo: Kim Fundingsland/The Dakotan)

So, the main body of water on Lake Sakakawea has remained open. In fact, fishermen were on the lake after Christmas. Crazy stuff! Now the question is, when will Lake Sakakawea become officially frozen, a date and time declared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

First, let’s look at the latest freeze dates for Lake Sakakawea: 

1 – January 24, 2001  

2 – January 18, 2012  

3 – January 16, 2000  

4 – January 15, 1987  

5 – January 13, 2016  

6 – January 12, 1976, 1998  

7 – January 11, 2003, 2020 

And, the warmest average high temperatures for December since record keeping began in 1905: 

1 -- 1939 29.0°F  

2 -- 1997 28.8°F   

3 --1999 28.7°F   

4 – 2023 28.0 

Does this mean that Lake Sakakawea is about to have its latest freeze date in history? Not guaranteed, but it’ll be close if it doesn’t. Colder weather is expected at least until later this January. Typically, below zero nights have a big impact on freeze up and below zero temperatures are in the January forecast. 

Many bays on Lake Sakakawea have been frozen, or partially frozen, for several weeks. The water temperature has been hovering near the freezing point, meaning cold temperatures with little or no wind could result in ice covering the entire lake in a few days' time. 

No matter really. The big water is destined to have one of its latest freezes ever. How late is what I will be watching. I think it’s interesting that five of the reservoir’s seven latest freeze dates have occurred since 2000.  

Will 2024 move onto that list? Never bet on what North Dakota weather will do, particularly in winter, but this one sure seems to have a chance. 

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