River Valley Outdoors
Even at a young age this Dixfield ice angler, Cody St. Germain, recognized the importance of safety on the ice.
One cold winter day, I gathered a few friends and decided to head out to the lake to do some ice fishing. Normally ice anglers worry about warm temperatures causing thin ice or open water, but on this trip the thermometer read well below zero.
Our group got to camp around noon on a Friday, set up ice traps, and had a caught a few fish within several hours. As we stood enjoying the view of the lake, another group of fellows pulled up to the boat launch at the end the lake and unloaded four new-looking snowmobiles from a huge trailer.
The group parked their truck, hopped on the sleds, and screamed across the frozen lake. As the first sled raced passed the end of our string of traps the engine blew, leaving a cloud of black smoke around the silent machine.
The rest of the snowmobiling gang gathered around the smoking sled, lifted its cowling, appeared to do some quick mechanical diddling, and then towed the broken snowmobile back to the trailer.
In a short amount of time, the group trailered the remaining sleds and left the lake.
The next morning, as we set up another string of ice fishing traps, we noticed a huge ice bank had built up overnight from expanding ice on the lake. Our thoughts all turned to the racing snowmobilers from the day before. If those hot rods had decided to race their machines across the lake that night, they certainly would have had a catastrophe when they ran into the four-foot wall of ice formed by the rapidly freezing lake.
Anyone that has been around frozen lakes and rivers for very long knows how much fun it can be to do some ice fishing, snowmobiling, ice skating, etc. on the slick ice surface. Experienced folks also know that the frozen water often holds many forms of danger, and take sufficient precautions.
Number one on the list of precautions should be making sure that the water has enough thickness to accommodate the weight of the person, as well as their equipment.
Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIF&W) officials offer a list of suggested ice thicknesses as a guide for anyone wishing to recreate on frozen waters. Their suggestions for safety on ice go as follows; one person can be supported by four inches, snowmobiles need six inches, small cars need eight to 12 inches, and bigger vehicles require 12 to 15 inches.
Remember, the MDIF&W ice thickness suggestions are for clear, dark ice in those thicknesses – on frozen lakes and ponds. Light-colored/white ice or ice on rivers or streams is often weak and can’t hold as much weight as uniform, dark, clear ice. Moving water also creates hazardous thin ice in unknown places and is very unpredictable.
Folks should follow the above ice thickness recommendations closely, and take great care when traveling across the frozen surface of lakes or rivers. Personally, I won’t go out onto a frozen river – it’s just too unpredictable for me.
Before stepping onto the ice, I always use an ice spud to test the thickness. After chipping through the ice on the shoreline to determine thickness, I cautiously move out a few yards and retest the ice to make sure it remains at a good thickness away from the shoreline.
I also always carry a pair of hand-held ice picks, made specifically for assisting me in case I do go through the ice. The picks help when trying to pull oneself back up onto the ice after falling through.
Don’t rely on seeing others out on the ice as an indication of safe ice condition either – always test the ice before venturing out.
The weather this year has been so variable that some waters may have a safe thickness in one place, and then unsafe conditions in another. Be especially cautious around areas where incoming or outgoing streams feed or drain a lake. The changing currents often produce sections of thin ice. Ice around standing features like big rocks or structures always presents thin ice conditions also.
Take these few precautions, make sure to leave someone with a map of where you plan to be, and enjoy a safe time on the ice this winter. Loved ones will appreciate the exciting stories of your time on the ice, and be comforted knowing that all safety precautions have been followed.