Winter ice conditions a reminder of ‘safety first’ 

photo by Jason Revermann

Last month I read in the local paper where, so far this winter, 10 snowmobilers lost their lives when their snow machines broke through thin ice while they were riding over a frozen lake or pond. The next day yet another snowmobiler was reported to have gone through the ice, as did a state trooper who tried to help him. Fortunately, both survived that encounter.

About 20 years ago my friend and I arrived at our favorite lake for a morning of ice fishing. On the way there we wondered if the ice would be safe enough to go fishing. We were getting our gear out of the truck when we noticed two snowmobilers going across the lake. Just as I was about to tell my friend we needn’t have worried about not having enough ice I looked up to see them almost disappear into the icy water. From where we were all I could see was the windshield of their sleds just above the surface of the ice. Before we could help, a cottage owner saw the entire episode and ran out with a rope to help the two men. He was able to get them out of the freezing water and on to thicker ice, but the sleds eventually slipped below the surface and were lost. The men were safe, but a lesson was learned.

This past winter, weather patterns throughout New York and, in fact, throughout the Northeast have produced dangerous ice conditions on lakes and rivers which, despite appearances, may not be solid enough for traditional outdoor activities. Mild winter temperatures like we had this last part of February could produce dangerous ice conditions, especially in areas where there may have been some snowfall. The snow falling on an already frozen lake surface can act as an insulating blanket and even if the air temperature drops to below freezing at night the ice beneath may not be as thick as some people might believe.

The Susquehanna River, which runs past my house, is a favorite ice fishing location when conditions are right, but it can be dangerous. About 10 or 12 years ago a number of fishermen were put in grave danger when the sheet of ice they were fishing on broke loose and began to float downriver. Fortunately, someone saw their predicament and called a rescue squad. The squad managed to get them off the ice flow just minutes before it broke up. It was a tragedy averted.

Anyone venturing out on a frozen lake or pond should thoroughly check ice conditions before heading out. Keep in mind snowmobile tracks or footprints on the ice should not be taken as safe ice conditions. As a rule there should be two to three inches of clear ice just to walk on it and six inches if you intend to run a snowmobile over it. As an ice fisherman, I always test the ice with my spud before walking too far off shore. If the spud doesn’t go through I figure the ice is safe enough to walk on.

Every year, emergency response personnel are involved in dozens of ice related rescue incidents across New York state. Falling through thin ice can and does happen, but it doesn’t have to happen to you if proper precautions are taken.

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