Ice Safety Tips
by Tim Smalley
Minnesota DNR Boat & Water Safety Specialist
Each year, as the ice begins to skim Minnesotaís lakes and ponds, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources receives hundreds of phone calls from anxious anglers who all have the same basic question: "Is the ice safe yet?" Thatís when I whip out my trusty stock answer: "No, ice is NEVER safe."
Realizing that statement is usually misunderstood as bureaucratic (and relatively evasive), I explain that even if ice is a foot thick in one area on a lake, it can be one inch thick just a few yards away.
A local sports reporter recently told a friend of mine that, "If it were up to the DNR people would never go on the ice." Although that is really the only way people could be totally safe, itís probably unrealistic for anyone to expect cabin fever-stricken Minnesotans to give up one of the few winter outdoor activities they participate in that doesnít involve tire chains and snow shovels!
Here are a few general guidelines for use by winter recreation enthusiasts to lessen their chances for an icy dip or worse. Itís impossible to judge the strength of ice by its appearance, thickness, daily temperature, or snow cover alone. Ice strength is actually dependent on all four factors, plus water depth under the ice, the size of the water and water chemistry, currents, and distribution of the load on the ice.
Having taken all of these precautions, youíre now going to try your luck at fishing. Walking out on the ice, you hear a crack and break through. Suddenly you find yourself immersed up to your neck in water so cold it takes your breath away. If you think thatís no big deal, try holding your hands in a bucket of ice water for more than a couple of minutes. If you can do it without extreme pain, you are tougher than the average person.
- Wait to walk out on the ice until there are at least 4 inches of clear, solid ice. Thinner ice will support one person, but since ice thickness can vary considerably, especially at the beginning and end of the season, 4 inches will provide a margin of safety. Some factors that can change ice thickness include flocks of waterfowl and schools of fish. By congregating in a small area, fish can cause warmer water from the bottom towards the surface, weakening or in some cases opening large holes in the ice.
- Go out with a buddy and keep a good distance apart as you walk out. If one of you goes in the other can call for help (itís amazing how many people carry cellular phones these days). The companion can also attempt a rescue if one of you are carrying rope or other survival gear.
- Snowmobiles and ATVís need at least 5 inches, and cars and light trucks need at least 8-12 inches of good clear ice.
- Contact a local resort or bait shop for information about known thin ice areas.
- Wear a life jacket. Life vests or float coats provide excellent flotation and protection from hypothermia (loss of body temperature). Never wear a life jacket if you are traveling in an enclosed vehicle, however. It could hamper escape in case of a breakthrough.
- Carry a pair of homemade ice picks or even a pair of screwdrivers tied together with a few yards of strong cord that can be used to pull yourself up and onto the ice if you do fall in. Be sure they have wooden handles so if you drop them in the struggle to get out of the water, they wonít go straight to the bottom!
- Avoid driving on the ice whenever possible. Traveling in a vehicle, especially early or late in the season is simply "an accident waiting to happen." In the 117 ice fatalities occurring in Minnesota since 1976, 68 percent involved a vehicle.
- Be prepared to bail out in a hurry if you find it necessary to use a car, unbuckle your seatbelt and have a plan of action if you do breakthrough. Some safety experts recommend driving with the window rolled down and the doors ajar for an easy escape. Move your car frequently. Parking in one place for a long period weakens ice. Donít park near cracks, and watch out for pressure ridges or ice heaves.
- Donít drive across ice at night or when it is snowing. Reduced visibility increases your chances for driving into an open or weak ice area.
- Check at the access if there are signs that indicate an aeration system is in operation on the lake. Aerators keep areas of water open to provide oxygen for fish. The ice can be weakened many yards beyond where the ice is actually open. Stay well outside the fenced areas indicated by diamond shaped thin ice signs.
- Above all, avoid alcoholic beverages. Beer and booze increases your chances for hypothermia and increases the likelihood that youíll make a stupid mistake that will cost you or a companion their life.
Try not to panic. Of course thatís easier said than done, but if you decide on a plan before you actually fall in, survival chances are greatly improved
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