Winter means snowmobiling, ice fishing, trapping, hunting, or even just a good old game of pond hockey. These activities can take you on one of our plentiful bodies of water made solid by the winter cold. Ice can be a dangerous thing even while looking completely harmless, so here are some ice safety tips to help ensure your winter fun remains safe.
Remember that ice thickness is rarely uniform across a body of water affecting the ice safety. There are many factors that affect the quality of ice and in turn its load bearing capabilities.
Check the colour. Good clear blue ice is the strongest. When looking down through this ice there should be minimal air bubbles or impurities. This indicates a good solid freeze. Snow mixed in the ice can cause it to have a frosted or white appearance. This can reduce strength by as much as half. Avoid ice that has a grey tint, as this means water has penetrated the ice. Generally this occurs as spring melt begins but even a few warm days can harm good ice.
Avoid anywhere with the possibility of moving water. Creeks and rivers can remain open all winter and wear ice thin where in contact with lakes and ponds. Extreme cold can “skin” open areas over, giving the illusion of safety. Animal activity, such as beavers, can move water enough to cause it to go from a couple of feet thick to only a couple of inches in a very short distance. Stay away from houses, runs and feed-beds for this reason.
Be aware of changes in water levels. Once the water and ice are no longer in contact, the ability to build ice is lost. This spots and double layers may occur. Travel may then be unsafe even though the weather has been conducive to producing good ice. Vegetation, logs, rocks and islands will draw heat from the sun. Enough heat can be absorbed to cause surrounding ice to become extremely thin. Give these areas a wide berth when travelling.
If you come upon a person who has fallen through the ice, call for help. Alert emergency services first. An ice rescue can be extremely dangerous and if at all possible should be performed by properly trained and equipped personnel.
If it is necessary for you to attempt rescue after calling 911, proceed with extreme caution. Try to enlist help from bystanders. Be reassuring and talk clearly to the victim. They may be in shock and exhausted and will need some coaching. Get as low as you can to spread your own weight out and approach slowly. Extend your reach to remain on safe ice. A rope to throw or even a tree branch from shore can be used. Once the victim has a grip and you are ready to pull, instruct them to kick their feet to help. Drag them a safe distance from the hole until you are confident the ice is strong enough to support everyone to stand.
Worst case scenario, you break through and find yourself in the water. If you are travelling alone try to remain calm but work quickly. Seconds count here. The cold will contract your muscles and rob you of precious energy necessary to get yourself onto the solid ice. Call out loudly for help. Try to alert anyone who may be near that may be able to assist in any way.
To extract yourself, try to orient yourself onto your stomach and get to the broken edge. Throw your arms on top, spread out to distribute weight. This edge may be thin. Push down to break away fragile ice and get yourself into a position where you are able to support your weight as you climb out.
Now is the time to get back up on top. With your arms ready to pull up, use your natural buoyancy aided by any air trapped under clothing to “bob”. As this pushes you upward, kick your feet as hard as possible to swim free. Stay as low and wide as possible and roll away from the hole in the direction of safe ice.
Hypothermia is now the main concern. Get to shelter or at the very least some source of warmth. Remove all wet clothing, get as dry as possible and begin to warm slowly. Remember that feeling will be impaired. If a fire is the heat source, be careful not to get too close and inflict a burn. Body heat from another person is an effective option. By definition, hypothermia is a drop in core temperature. Raising your core temperature back to normal too suddenly can cause more issues, including arrest. Get medical attention as soon as possible.
Be Safe out there and enjoy all that winter has to offer.