‘Never take the ice for granted’ when venturing onto a frozen lake

Brad Bolen, right, and Greg Briggs, members of the Boise Fire Department’s dive team, practiced ice rescues at ParkCenter pond earlier this month.
Brad Bolen, right, and Greg Briggs, members of the Boise Fire Department’s dive team, practiced ice rescues at ParkCenter pond earlier this month. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

Lake ice can creak, groan, pop and tinkle. And when it opens up underneath you, it may not make a sound.

That’s what Ryan Sokoloski learned on New Year’s Day while leading a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks tour of Placid Lake’s frozen surface. One minute he was inviting the half-dozen participants to listen to the eerie sounds, and the next he was up to his neck in freezing water.

“If I had a bunch of first responders and guys with scuba tanks wanting to do a class in ice water rescue and they said stand over there and wait for it to break, I’d say no way,” Sokoloski recalled with a relieved laugh a few days later. “But in a way, I’m glad this happened. It was a great way to remind people to never take the ice for granted.”

Sokoloski was on a FWP “First Day Hike” at the Placid Lake State Park, following a route he’d tested the day before. He was about 15 feet away from a spot where ice fishermen had set up their shack on New Year’s Eve. A test hole he’d made 15 minutes before showed between 5 and 6 inches of ice, the level typically strong enough to support snowmobiles.

No spiderweb of cracks gave any warning about the ice failure. As he fell, another member of the party tried to grab him, and the ice gave way beneath her, too. Only submerged to her waist, she was able to roll back onto the solid surface.

But Solokoski found the edge of the ice disintegrating more as he tried to grab it. While lake ice can be remarkably strong and flexible when solid, it loses most of its integrity when broken. Each time he tried to lift himself out, the hole became larger.

Then the unexpected happened. In an ice hole 30 feet from shore, over water he knew to be about 12 feet deep, Sokoloski found something to stand on. His boots were sliding on a surface about 4 feet down, but he wasn’t sinking. Two other tour members extended a ski pole and a snow shovel, and pulled him out of the water.

The whole incident lasted about 90 seconds.

The ledge Sokoloski found himself on was likely a very unusual version of a common lake ice effect. After a layer of ice forms, additional snow or rain can weigh the surface down and allow water to seep up and over. A new top layer of ice forms, but the water between stays liquid or slushy, like the creamy filling inside an Oreo cookie.

“Usually, it’s only 2 or 3 inches of water under that first layer,” said Missoula ice fisherman Adam Krantz, who was trying his luck on nearby Salmon Lake on New Year’s Day. “That’s scary. When you go in up to your knees, that’s terrifying.”

Ice travelers watch for several danger signs when determining whether to cross a frozen lake.

It’s good to know the lake’s warm-weather characteristics, because weedy places in summer become underwater compost piles in winter. They actually generate heat, which can weaken ice. Creek inlets and outlets have flowing water, which affects the thickness above their currents. Places exposed to prevailing winds tend to take longer to freeze than more sheltered bays.

“And sometimes there are just thin spots,” Krantz said.

The type of ice also makes a difference. Safety recommendations are based on inches of clear, blue ice. Slushy ice with lots of cloudy bubbles has just half the structural strength, inch for inch, of blue ice. The strength of ice over a flowing creek or river is typically 15 percent less than the same thickness of ice over still water.

If you get into trouble on lake ice and you’re by yourself:

  • Call for help.
  • Resist the immediate urge to climb back out where you fell in. The ice is weak in this area.
  • Use the air trapped in your clothing to get into a floating position on your stomach.
  • Reach forward onto the broken ice without pushing down. Kick your legs to push your torso on the ice.
  • When you are back on the ice, crawl on your stomach or roll away from the open area with your arms and legs spread out as far as possible to evenly distribute your body weight. Do not stand up.

When you are with others on the ice:

  • The safest way to perform a rescue is from shore.
  • Call for help. Consider whether you can quickly get help from trained professionals (police, firefighters or ambulance) or bystanders.
  • Check if you can reach the person using a long pole or branch from shore — if so, lie down and extend the pole to the person.
  • If you go onto ice, wear a personal flotation device and carry a long pole or branch to test the ice in front of you. Bring something to reach or throw to the person — a pole, weighted rope, line or tree branch.
  • When near the break, lie down to distribute your weight and slowly crawl toward the hole. Remaining low, extend or throw your emergency rescue device — pole, rope, line or branch — to the person.
  • Have the person kick while you pull them out.
  • Move the person to a safe position on shore or where you are sure the ice is thick. Signal for help.

Source: Canadian Red Cross