This is a topic that naturally comes to my mind every year in early January.
Conesus Lake, which is the lake in front of my home, has been frozen over for a few days. So far, I’ve not noticed any ice fishermen, cross-country skiers, or snowmobilers, but it won’t be long.
I’ve lived on the shore of this lake since 1977. There seems to be an average of about 1 drowning death every year. All, of course, are unnecessary.
It reminds me of two events from my teenage years. I grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and, in those days, there was only one indoor rink in the whole city.
That meant that there were limited choices for those of us who loved playing hockey. Our practices and games were scheduled at inconvenient times such as early Sunday mornings.
There were no high school teams. There was one city league for youngsters that was divided up by the north, west, south, and east quadrants of the city.
I was the only player from Ottawa Hills. My teammate Jim, though, was from Sylvania, which was next to Ottawa Hills and also on the west side. I knew him from Christ Presbyterian church. He was a year older than me, and he had a sister my age.
My mother was delighted when Jim turned 16! That meant that he could drive me downtown to the Sports Arena at those crazy hours, which relieved her of that arduous responsibility.
Jim’s family moved south to Columbus the following year. In the northern hemisphere of course, natural ice is typically thinner the further south one goes. Skating on a river or creek in Columbus, he fell through and drowned. His funeral was in Toledo. He was the first of my friends to die. His sister cried a lot; I felt sorry for her.
Lacking ice time for frequent practices indoors, we always skated on natural ice whenever we could find it or flooded our back lawns to create it. Since it was only a mile away, I usually skated outdoors on the Ottawa River (aka ‘Ten-mile creek’).
Once I was skating with my friend Dick Correll near the Bancroft Street bridge where pick-up hockey games were frequent. One kid fell through the ice and couldn’t get out. Alone, he would have drowned.
I lay spread-eagle on my stomach. As Dick held my ankles, I reached out a hockey stick to him. He was able to grasp it and we were able to pull him out. He was, naturally, soaking wet. Dick and I decided to call it quits for that afternoon. Dick drove him to his home – and we kept his hockey stick. We briefly discussed returning it to him, but we decided that trading that stick for his life was a good deal for him. (All good thinkers, like me, are also good rationalizers!)
Be careful on natural ice. Think safety.
What does that mean concretely?
It’s important to know the thickness of the ice. It should be at least 4” thick if you want to walk or ice-fish on it. It should be at least 5” thick if you want to snowmobile on it.
Because the thickness of ice is not necessarily uniform, I recommend that natural ice should be 6” or more thick before risking your life on it.
Remember that, if you fall through into deep water in winter, your thick clothing will quickly absorb water and make you a lot heavier. Skates, of course, are useless for swimming or treading water.
The only way to know how thick it is is to measure it by cutting through it with an auger or an axe. Assumptions about its thickness can get you killed.
Here’s a very inexpensive way to increase your odds of survival. Go to a hardware store and buy 10” of wooden dowel that has a diameter that is easy for you to grip comfortably and securely. Also pick up 3 feet of thin rope, two eye hooks with interior diameters large enough to accommodate both one of your thumbs and the rope, and two big steel nails.
When you return home, saw the dowel in half. Set one piece on its end and drill a starter hold for an eyebolt. On its other end, drive a nail deeply into its center. Cut off the head of the nail and sharpen it to a point. Screw the eyebolt into its other end. Repeat with the other dowel. Tie each end of the rope through the eyebolt and fasten each end securely with a clove hitch or square knot.
Whenever you venture out onto natural ice, wear that around your neck outside your clothing. If you fall through, grab a dowel firmly in each hand, with the eyebolts on the inside of your hands. Drive one sharpened nail into the ice deeply enough to hold you. Drive the other sharpened nail into the ice a bit further away from you. Repeat as you pull yourself out of the water.
There are no guarantees. It may not work. However, that simple, inexpensive device may save your life (or someone else’s life).
There are other tactics, too, that can help. If you are walking on ice over deep water, typically it will be snow-covered, which makes thin spots especially difficult to identify. It’s a good idea to wear snowshoes to spread out your weight.
Similarly, it’s a good idea not to emulate runway models who walk by putting one foot in front of the other; instead, tread with your feet spread apart, which also helps to spread out your weight.
My Viking ancestors were wise enough to be mindful of natural ice safety. As is written in The Elder Edda (Paul B. Taylor & W. H. Auden, trs.):
“For these things give thanks at nightfall . . . ice crossed.”
May all your ice crossings be safe ones.