I’m typically careful and consequently, quite comfortable on the ice.
Sean Casper, the man behind the TGO camera, turns away from his eyepiece long enough to acknowledge my thought, then looks back just as the ice gives. With a sudden, crunching jar, I feel the boat break through into the icy, open water of Lake Winnebago, floating amid various sized, broken chunks and jagged shards of bobbling ice.
My eyes are wide as Jeff Schweitzer of the Neenah-Menasha Fire Department Dive Rescue Squad glances back at me, and I find myself surprised by his poised, professionally composed demeanor. As the boat lifts back up onto the pack, I realize why.
Jeff’s been in this situation before, under much more dire circumstances.
Fortunately, there’s little to worry about. I’m aboard one of the world’s most sophisticated, fully equipped dive/ice rescue boats; featuring a sturdy, Kevlar laminate hull and operated by a 450 horsepower, propeller driven engine. This boat has been specifically designed to operate under these conditions.
Neenah-Menasha Ice Rescue Boat
HULL CONSTRUCTION: KEVLAR LAMINATE WITH INTEGRATED (UHMW) POLYMER BOTTOM
PAYLOAD: 6 PASSENGERS, 1200 LBS.
PROPELLER: COMPOSITE ADJUSTABLE PITCH
BRAKE SYSTEM: HYDRAULIC STAINLESS STEEL BRAKE PLATE WITH ICE PICKS
It’s also manned by a team of experienced, certified dive-rescue personnel considered among the best trained in the world–and we’re all safely clothed in insulated, water tight suits equipped with built-in ice picks.
I’m safe now, but would I be prepared for an emergency during a typical ice fishing outing?
Given the amount of time I spend on the ice, this is a constant concern. I’m extraordinarily careful, but not invincible. There’s never been an instance when I haven’t stepped onto the ice and felt at least some semblance of trepidation, simply because an element of risk is always present.
It’s for this very reason I felt this was an episode worth taping. Like anything else, ice fishing is a privilege, and with privilege comes responsibility. If we’re going to promote ice fishing, I feel we must also review basic ice safety practices and measures.
The best way to avoid tragedy is to minimize risk in the first place—and, by knowing what to do should an incident occur. I sincerely hope you never witness an accident or become a victim, but the risk is real, so should the unthinkable happen, this is information worth knowing.
Here’s a little review of what we covered in this first episode—along with some additional material I hope you’ll take time to read and share with anyone you know venturing onto the ice.
Let’s start with the chemical principle that water expands as it freezes, causing it to float on liquid water. If you don’t believe that, try sinking an ice cube in a glass of water. It’s this characteristic that explains why clear, fresh solid blue ice of appropriate thickness can support substantial weight.
In fact, not only will solid, fresh clear blue ice support ice anglers, but an astounding amount of additional weight. Proof: When the Trans-Siberian railroad was constructed across southern Siberia, train ferries carrying entire freight trains across Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest inland lake, were replaced in winter by railroad tracks laid directly across the ice.
Still, conditions vary greatly, and no ice can ever be considered 100% safe. A number of variables affect the rate of ice formation, its overall integrity and tensile strength. We’ll cover several of these momentarily–but first, let’s consider the following guidelines.
Although these points help determine probable load strength, notice I used the term guidelines, because this information is based on the assumption we’re dealing with ideal, clear, solid ice.
- ONE PERSON WALKING: 3-4”
- SNOWMOBILE OR 4-WHEELER: 6-7”
- CAR: 10”
- LIGHT TRUCK: 12”
Again, note I used the terms MAXIMUM LOAD and IDEAL, CLEAR, SOLID ICE. These are key terms. A variety of things may significantly impact tensile strength and your ability to traverse an ice pack. New, clear, blue colored ice, for example, is much stronger than old gray or blackened ice that has been partially thawed and refrozen. While two inches of new, clear blue ice will normally support an average sized angler, twelve inches of old, black, honeycombed ice may not. Beware! Although ice can be strong, it can also be dangerous and demands respect…something that starts by developing a plan before you ever set out.
Developing a Plan
Begin by checking with knowledgeable, reliable sources to inquire about ice conditions. Local chamber of commerce or resource agencies, police and fire departments, resorts, guides and bait shop owners typically know…or are at least in touch with…someone who can help.
Just don’t believe everything you hear: Ice conditions vary greatly and can change quickly. This is because ice develops at different rates, and given various conditions, morphs into a variety of different thicknesses and states. Thus, factors affecting ice conditions must be considered and clearly understood before each trip, and you must always follow up on anything you’ve learned with some research of your own.
Here are some factors to consider.
1. Geographical Location
It’s no secret that the further north you travel, the earlier ice forms. People in northern Minnesota may be hunched inside an ice shelter for protection from severe cold at Thanksgiving, while at the same time, those in northern Illinois may be experiencing an outside walk in short sleeves.
However, proximity to large bodies of water and elevation also affect freezing. Ice anglers in central Wisconsin may be jigging through 6” of ice mid-December, while those at the same latitude in the adjoining state of Michigan, where air temperatures are often moderated by prevailing westerly winds and warming “lake effects” of Lake Michigan, are still fishing from boats.
Even mid-winter, ice anglers may be drilling holes high in the Colorado Rockies as their lower elevation counterparts in the foothills are casting fly rods in open water.
2. Ice Does Not Form at Same Rate Even within the Same Local Area
For that matter, different lakes in the same locale may freeze at different times. It’s easy to assume ice cover will be the same throughout a local area, but that’s a misconception. Shallow lakes feature a greater surface cooling area to volume ratio and freeze sooner than larger, deeper lakes holding a greater volume of water. Consequently, you might be fishing a shallow lake coated with a thick layer of ice, yet find a deep one just across the road still wide open.
3. Other Factors Influencing Ice Formation
Other factors enter in, too. Even within an individual lake, ICE FORMATION IS SELDOM UNIFORM!
Shallow, shaded areas protected from the sun and wind, for example, are more likely to freeze earlier than deeper, more expansive areas of exposed, open water. Ice beneath snow drifts is insulated and won’t likely be as thick as adjacent, exposed patches, and inflowing springs bringing relatively warm, moving water may inhibit ice formation or erode ice during milder conditions. Moving water within channels between lakes and the mouths of inlets or outlets have similar effects, as do mechanical aerators.
Shallow rock or vegetated areas don’t freeze as solidly, either, because rock and weeds attract sunlight, warm the area and inhibit ice formation. Any solid object for that matter—an emergent stump, rock, fallen tree or dock post—may carry out a similar process of conduction. Objects such as shelters on the surface also absorb heat and may weaken the ice around them.
Even grouped flocks of geese or ducks may keep areas open, delaying ice formation and resulting in regions of thinner ice–in fact, fish, muskrats or other animals swimming repeatedly beneath a particular area can create isolated, weakened spots in the ice.
Pack ice is another danger, especially on larger waters. Pack ice is formed when bays, shorelines or regions of a body partially freeze, then due to a combination of wind and pressure crack formation, ice chunks of varying thickness break free and drift to another area, where they freeze together at various angles. This, plus water freezing between the mangled chucks that isn’t nearly as thick as the blocks themselves, may result in tremendous variations in ice thickness.
Frozen reservoirs or river backwaters form yet another situation where fluctuating water levels raise havoc with ice formation and must be monitored closely. If water levels rise, they can create unsafe conditions by pushing the ice upward, flooding shorelines. These areas may quickly refreeze, but cause a temporary hazard. Given such conditions, you may leave the lake one evening on a foot of ice and unknowingly trod over less than an inch the next morning! And if the water level drops, shoreline ice heaves may form and jut up at steep angles, again creating poor shore ice conditions.
Another bad situation often occurs during first ice. Early cold snaps may allow a base layer of ice to form, but followed by a heavy snowstorm dropping several inches of insulating snow will slow continued freeze-up. Heavy snows can even weigh the ice down, pushing the pack below the waterline, causing the snow to act as a water absorbing sponge, creating slush and making ice conditions poor and travel difficult. Cold weather may eventually or partially freeze this slush, but the resulting ice is comparably weak, mottled with numerous air pockets and may support only a thin layer of solid ice beneath. Cross a spring or current influenced area now, and you may end up in over your head!
Strong winds may also cause a “pumping” action on the surface of the ice regardless of its thickness, which forces water up through fishing holes and pressure ridges, enlarging openings. Although this may occur on solid ice, it’s more common in areas where water from open basins or rivers form currents that enter large frozen bays or circumvent islands, and the moving water erodes the ice.
Even thick, solid ice can develop cracks or thin spots called pressure ridges. Pressure ridges are formed by the force of expanding ice. As winter progresses in a typical year, ice thickens and expands, but since the surface area covered remains the same, the expanding ice pack causes pressure heaves to form in the areas of greatest stress, ultimately causing the ice to crack and heave, sometimes forming pockets of open water within the cracks. Also note that due to lake shape, these ridges will often form in the same areas each winter, so they should be marked as hazards on your GPS.
Finally, late ice presents another potentially bad situation. Dark, honeycombed late season ice is weak, followed by shoreline ice–which being the shallowest water to begin with and closest to the warming substrate and emergent objects such as vegetation, trees, rocks or piers–remains the thinnest on the lake and is often first to melt.
TYPES OF ICE
You may also be interested in learning to recognize and identify different types of ice.
Frazil Ice: The first type of ice to form. These are composed of disk shaped crystals suspended in water, and may appear as a thin, oily or opaque looking film.
Clear Ice: New ice is formed by a long, hard freeze. It can be blue, green or black due to color of water reflecting through ice. This is usually the strongest ice.
Cloudy Ice: Discolored or cloudy ice tends to indicate weaker areas.
Snow Ice: Opaque or milking looking, weak ice formed from the melting and subsequent re-freezing of water soaked snow.
Layered Ice: This is ice comprised of multiple layers of frozen and refrozen snow and ice, causing unstable conditions and potentially dangerous pockets of soft ice.
Anchor Ice: Formed around solid objects. Sun warms objects which releases these ice clumps that may gather and re-freeze, forming pack ice.
Pack Ice: Broken up ice cakes that gather and re-freeze together creating pockets of inconsistent ice thickness.
Honeycombed Ice: Dangerous, deteriorated ice featuring a honeycombed appearance is weakening rapidly and features little tensile strength.
DRIVING ON THE ICE
For many of the reasons listed above, driving vehicles on the ice can be dangerous. Snowmobiles or ATV’s are a safer bet than cars or trucks and good sources for on ice travel, but if you decide to drive your car or truck there are some safety concerns beyond the norm to consider.
First, avoid alcohol. Many accidents occur simply due to irresponsible drinking.
Secondly, take it easy. It’s tempting to race to a potential hotspot, but many anglers have dropped vehicles through the ice because the stopping distance dictated by their speed exceeded the distance between a region of solid and weakened ice. This is especially prominent at night when stopping distances become greater than the distance vehicle headlights penetrate the darkness ahead.
You should also avoid excessive speeds to decrease the ice wake your vehicle forms. That’s right, a vehicle traveling across the ice forms a wake, just like a boat in open water—and this wake may form cracks.
A light truck on ice 12” thick depresses the ice 2.5” around it for a distance of 200’. As you drive across the ice, the pack is forced to bend up and down. This movement forms long waves, which roll out and away from the vehicle, just like a boat wake in open water. This movement also creates another wave in front of the vehicle, which based on a number of variables, including ice thickness and condition, weather and vehicle weight, means when the vehicle reaches a critical speed it may create a pressure ridge crack. Another vehicle following closely behind will interrupt these wave actions, causing additional cracks in the ice and compounding the issue.
If you’re driving on the ice, use caution. Don’t drive fast or close together and always leave your seat belts unbuckled and windows rolled down so you can bail out quickly in the event of a breakthrough.
APPROACHING A LAKE
In summary, here are TEN TIPS I recommend using when approaching a frozen lake:
1) CHECK WITH LOCALS FOR CURRENT ICE INFORMATION.
2) IDENTIFY PROBLEM AREAS AND IF AVAILABLE, MARK THEM AS WAYPOINTS ON YOUR GPS.
3) SAVE YOUR LAUNCH SITE AS A GPS WAYPOINT.
4) WEAR ICE CLEATS AND A LIFE JACKET.
5) CARRY SAFETY PICKS AND A THROW ROPE.
6) KEEP A CELL PHONE IN A ZIP LOCK BAG LOCATED WITHIN AN EASILY ACCESSIBLE POCKET.
7) CHECK THE ICE CONDITIONS THOROUGHLY ON YOUR OWN, AVOIDING AREAS OF CONCERN.
8) ALWAYS TRAVEL IN PAIRS, AND LET A THIRD, LANDED PARTY KNOW YOUR PLANS.
9) SPREAD OUT, WALKING SLOWLY AND TESTING THE ICE BY CHOPPING AHEAD WITH A CHISEL AND DRILLING TEST HOLES AT REGULAR INTERVALS AS YOU PROGRESS FORWARD.
10) IF YOU ENCOUNTER THIN ICE, RETRACE YOUR STEPS, RETREATING BACKWARDS TOWARD SOLID ICE.
RESPONSE IN THE EVENT OF A MISHAP
Here are some things to know in the event you witness someone break through:
1) Begin by calling 911 to get professional assistance coming. Provide dispatchers with clear, detailed directions to your location—GPS coordinates, if possible—and an explanation of your situation.
2) Keep yourself safe and dry–you can’t help someone by becoming a victim yourself. Instead, take action by reaching out to the victim from shore or distant area of solid ice, and extend an item such as a rope, stick, pole or ladder—anything to help prevent the victim from slipping beneath the surface. If you must attempt a rescue from the ice and are in close proximity to a thin or weakened pack, stay as far back as possible, and using a hole or something to brace yourself against for leverage, pitch a throwing device such as a throw rope you can extend to the victim from a safe distance.
3) When possible, get the victim out of the water and remove wet clothes. Then, while attempting to protect their body from winds as best you can, wrap the victim in dry, warm blankets.
4) Finally, provided one is in close proximity, carefully transfer them to a heated cabin. Otherwise, minimize movement. Transportation is best left to medical professionals, but if you do move a victim, always do so slowly and with great care.
WHAT TO EXPECT IF YOU FALL IN YOURSELF
If you should happen to be the victim, expect severe shock from the cold water to have the following effect:
1) An immediate, uncontrolled gasp or water aspiration—an involuntary response also known as the “Mammalian Diving Reflex” that may cause hyperventilation.
Respond by doing your best to remain calm. Collect yourself. Avoid struggling to minimize heat loss, reach for your safety picks and do your best to float up onto your belly. Distributing your weight as much as possible, position yourself toward solid ice and extending outward, attempt to pull yourself from the water. Keep in mind weakened ice surrounding the open hole will likely give, so you may have to lift yourself up repeatedly until you encounter ice thick enough to support your weight.
If someone has extended or thrown you something in an effort to help, if possible, loop or wrap the object around you, and float to the surface in an effort to evenly distribute your weight, making it easier for your rescuer to pull you from the water and back onto solid ice.
In summary, it’s a chemical principle that frozen water expands, causing it to float. Thus, ice can be strong, but is often varied in thickness and structure, therefore demands respect. Always observe precautions to ensure your trip will be without incident–but should the unexpected occur, always be prepared with the right gear, keep it handy, and know how to use it.
Most importantly, always remember these six words of wisdom: When in doubt, don’t go out!