Winter’s fast start has pleased snow and ice lovers. The trails were ready sooner, ice anglers were dipping lines in November, and ice shacks and trucks were on area lakes by mid-December.
ATVs and snowmobiles criss-cross frozen surfaces, their operators enjoying the open expanse.
But ice is never completely safe.
Dave Walz, conservation warden supervisor for Florence, Forest, Oneida and Vilas counties, had a few words of advice for those traveling on ice.
“One thing is, people shouldn’t be traveling alone,” Walz said. “They should be out with a friend or something, if possible.”
As a recent snowmobile accident in the Vilas County township of Lincoln demonstrated, there can be unsafe ice even in very cold weather like we’ve been experiencing.
The snowmobiler went through at the entrance of the channel on Eagle Lake the evening of Dec. 29. The rider was able to keep his head above water by standing on his submerged sled.
He was rescued and treated for hypothermia. He should have known the area, Walz said.
“I’ve always encouraged people, if they aren’t familiar with the area, to contact sport and bait shops to find out. Check with ice fishermen out there on the lake to see what conditions are like,” he said.
“By now, [the lakes] should be pretty good up here, except when you get into that flowing water by the channels or on the river itself. But I think there’s a false sense of security that a lot of people get when they see some ice out there, and snow on top of it.”
Walz recommends carrying ice picks for an added measure of safety while traveling on ice. These can give a person leverage to pull themselves back onto safe ice in the event they do go through.
Walz stressed learning the territory, and avoiding unknown areas after dark. Exploration by day is safer.
Most hard water is relatively safe, but despite the cold temperatures that have gripped the Northwoods this month, there’s still danger associated with ice.
“The ice on the lakes is good, you know,” Walz said. “We’ve got 12, 13 inches of ice on most of the lakes up here, but with the snow blanketing it, it’s not making as much ice anymore.”
Walz added that recent below zero weather should be making ice, but that there will always be dangerous spots.
The snowmobile season hadn’t seen any fatalities in the counties he supervises, Walz noted.
“Fortunately, no calls in the middle of the night saying somebody had killed themselves, so that’s a good thing,” he said. “Hopefully people will drive safe, slow down, and drink less, too.”
“So far, so good,” Walz added. “Weve had a few injury crashes and stuff here. I think one person broke their leg, I heard, up by Manitowish Waters ... I’m not sure how that happened. They must have hit a tree or something. Nothing life-threatening.”
The two state snowmobile fatalities so far this snowmobiling season (as of Monday) occurred in Columbia and Dodge counties, Walz said.
The DNR on ice safety
There really is no sure answer on when ice is safe, and no such thing as 100 percent safe ice.
Ice strength is based on several factors, and they can vary from water body to water body. Ice strength can also vary in different areas of the same body of water.
The DNR does not monitor local ice conditions or the thickness of the ice.
Local bait shops, fishing clubs and resorts serve winter anglers every day and often have the most up-to-date information on how thick the ice is on local lakes and rivers, as well as areas that are especially dangerous.
• Dress warmly in layers.
• Don’t go alone. Head out with friends or family. Take a cell phone if available, and make sure someone knows where you are and when you are expected to return.
• Know before you go. Don’t travel in areas you are not familiar and don’t travel at night or during reduced visibility.
• Avoid inlets, outlets or narrows that may have current that can thin the ice.
• Look for clear ice, which is generally stronger than ice with snow on it or bubbles in it.
• Carry some basic safety gear: ice claws or picks, a cell phone in a waterproof bag or case, a life jacket and length of rope.
Make some ice claws:
In the event you fall through, a pair of ice claws can give you the extra traction you need to pull yourself up onto the ice.
1. Get two four-inch pieces of wooden doweling the size of a broom handle or a little larger. Whatever material you select, it should float in case you drop the claws while struggling.
2. Drive a stout nail into one end of each dowel. This should be a hardened 16 penny or larger concrete nail.
3. Use a file to sharpen the nail heads to a point.
4. Drill a hole into the dowels (in the end opposite the nail) and tie a length of strong cord through the hole so a pick is on each end “jump-rope” fashion. You may also drill a hole in the ends alongside the nails so the nail on the other pick can nest in the hole, keeping both points covered.
Keep the picks in your pocket for quick emergency access if you or a companion do break through.
Craig Turk may be reached at email@example.com.