How to stay safe on frozen lakes, ponds

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As Ohioans, we’re accustomed to the constantly changing winter weather — freezing temperatures mixed in with your occasional 60 F day. Not that the nicer weather isn’t a welcome break from the bitter cold, but it makes recreational activities on ice dangerous.

When the temperature changes suddenly, the ice thaws, cracks and refreezes. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether or not it’s safe for fishing, skating, hockey and other activities.

Fortunately, you can reduce the risks by planning ahead, checking the ice, following safety guidelines on the ice and having a plan in place incase you fall through.

Preparation

It’s important to properly check this ice before you go out, however, there are some things to consider even before:

  • Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back. Sharing this information can save your life if something does happen.
  • Understand that the conditions of the ice vary from lake to lake. Try to find a local source that is knowledgeable about the ice conditions of the lake you’re visiting.

Checking the ice

It’s difficult to tell the strength of ice simply by its appearance, its thickness, the temperature outside or whether or not it’s covered with snow. However, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources offers some tips to get you started:

  • Clear ice with a bluish tint is the strongest, while milky ice formed by melted and refrozen snow is porous and weak.
  • Ice covered by snow is always unsafe as snow acts like an insulating blanket and slows the freezing process. Under a blanket of snow, ice will be thinner and weaker, reducing how much weight an ice sheet can support. It’s also important to note that a snowfall can warm up and melt preexisting ice.
  • Slush on the ice is a clear sign to stay off of it. It’s only about half as strong as clear ice. Slush indicates the ice is no longer freezing from the bottom.
  • Be extremely cautious when air temperatures have fluctuated. Although warm weather may take several days to weaken the ice, fluctuating temperatures that cause the ice to thaw during the day and refreeze at night result in weak, spongy ice that is unsafe.
  • Ice strength can change. After rain even thick ice is rotten.
  • Ice with a current running underneath can be unreliable and dangerous. This is especially true near streams, bridges and culverts. Additionally, the ice on the outside of a river bend is usually weaker as a result of the faster current.
  • Wildlife, such as waterfowl, schools of fish and beavers, can cause areas of thin ice. Their movement under the water, especially schools of fish, can bring warm water up from the bottom of the lake, opening holes in the ice.
  • New ice is almost always stronger than old ice. Four inches of clear, fresh ice may support one person on foot, while a foot or more of old, partially thawed ice may not.
  • Rather than use the standard inch-thickness test, requiring four inches of clear ice to support an average person’s weight, it’s better to check ice thickness with a spud and a ruler every few steps as ice seldom forms uniformly. Checking the ice this way will help you steer clear of thin areas.
Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Ohio Department of Natural Resources

On the ice

After you’ve confirmed the ice is safe to walk on by drilling a test hole near shore and finding at least four inches of clear ice, you need to continue taking caution on the ice.

  • When walking out on a frozen body of water with a group, it’s better to spread out and avoid crossing in a single file.
  • Avoid areas with large cracks or depressions and be wary of thin spots on the ice caused by underwater springs, currents or wildlife. Additionally, stay away from feeder streams, bridge pilings, docks and dam structures as ice is usually very thin there.
  • Take a cell phone for emergency use and make sure it’s protected from moisture.
  • Wear a life jacket and bright colored clothing. It’s also a good idea to bring a spare change of clothes in case of emergency.
  • Fishermen should test the thickness of a specific spot before settling. Additionally, if you’re using a shanty make sure there are reflectors on each side, so snowmobiles can see them at dusk and during snowstorms.
  • Don’t panic if you hear booming or “singing.” It just means the ice is expanding and contracting as the temperature changes. With experience you can differentiate between this noise and the dangerous sound of ice cracking.
  • Never go out on the ice alone. Always bring a partner or a group.

What to do if you fall through

Obviously, falling through the ice is the worst case scenario. However, even if you’ve taken every precaution, you should still be prepared. Here are some tips:

  • If you fall through, you need to remain calm.
  • Don’t take off your winter clothes. It’s a common misconception that the heavy layers will drag you down. However, your clothes can trap air to provide insulation and floatation, especially snowmobile suits.
  • The strongest ice will likely be in the direction you came from, which makes it the best place to try to get out.
  • To pull yourself out, dig the points of ice picks into the ice, while vigorously kicking your feet and sliding forward on the ice. If you don’t have ice picks, try calling for help and try swimming out by letting your body rise up to firm ice as you crawl out.
  • Once you are on the surface, stay flat and roll away from the weak ice to keep your weight evenly distributed and avoid breaking through again.
  • After you’re off the ice you need to find shelter, dry clothing and warm non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated drinks.
  • Seek medical attention if you feel disoriented, have uncontrollable shivering, or have any other ill effects that may be symptoms of hypothermia.

If someone else falls through

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources recommends the following steps:

  • Reach for the individual using a stick or fishing pole.
  • Throw a rope or floatation device.
  • Row or push a boat towards the individual.
  • Go call for help.

Resources

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