ICE: A Clear and Present Danger

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

The glaciers that shaped Oakland County have gifted us with beautiful lakes that support winter recreational activities of every imaginable focus. These lake activities range from high-speed ice boating to the peaceful solitude of a lone ice fisher staring solemnly into a dark hole, waiting for a fish to bite.

Sadly, winter often brings ice related accidents and sometimes fatalities. These tragedies result from a combination of four factors: excitement, poor judgment, poor decision making and inadequate information. The fact of the matter is clear; anyone that ventures onto ice must accept the fact that NO ICE IS SAFE ICE (a mantra of the United States Coast Guard). There is always risk. That is a lesson I learned last winter.

Ice that appears solid may not be; my initial crossing was uneventful.

Ice that appears solid may not be; my initial crossing was uneventful.

It was early in February, after weeks of record cold temperatures. I knew, without a doubt, that the ice on the small kettle lake I was heading for was rock solid. I was wrong. I shuffled across the lake in single digit weather with snowshoes strapped to my boots and a camera around my neck. I was without a care in my mind on a spectacular and sunny day. A few minutes later, after crossing the middle of the lake, I reached my quest. It was a snow capped beaver lodge and I happily captured the photos I sought. I rested for a few minutes, relishing the sparkling sunlight of the frigidly cold day. After, I headed for the closer shore to do a bit of exploring on the nearby hillside.

The snow capped beaver lodge on the far side of the lake drew attention from birds, small mammals and me.

The snow capped beaver lodge on the far side of the lake drew attention from birds, small mammals and me.

And then, without warning and barely twenty feet from shore, my left leg plunged through the snow and ice. Cold water swirled around my hips as I fell forward. Stretching my arms wide, perhaps by instinct, perhaps by accident, I spread my weight and quickly wiggled myself free. I rolled away from the gaping hole and I snapped one photo. It must have been the, Wow, this will be a cool picture idea that always seems to float in my mind. Thirty seconds later, after crawling for shore in a sideways fashion like a frightened fiddler crab, I sat on the bank and surveyed the scene.

I took a quick look back, snapped one photo after the breakthrough, and then crawled to shore.

I took a quick look back, snapped one photo after the breakthrough, and then crawled to shore.

It did not take much detective work to discover what happened as I surveyed the scene and practiced after the fact situational awareness. Willows, aspen and cattails were thick at the edge of the shore, on a hillside dominated by oaks. This water-loving, emergent vegetation clearly indicated a hidden spring-fed lake at the location near my breakthrough. The snow had acted as insulation, preventing the ice from becoming more solid, and hid the thin spot created by the movement of water. I shuffled and shivered along over the hilltop and through the woods, with my left leg caked in crusty ice and snow, thinking of the surprise event. It’s what I will call a near miss.

The four factors I have preached to others, but failed to practice myself, came back to mind: 1. excitement, 2. poor judgment, 3. poor decision making and 4. inadequate information. I had been excited about my quest for beaver lodge photos. I used poor judgment in leaving my ice picks (a self-rescue device) that usually hangs around my neck when on ice and my PFD in the car. My poor decision making in heading out without surveying the scene came at a cost.  As for inadequate information, the snow hid the thin ice.

The lake had one obvious spring, but the hidden ones are the lurking dangers for winter recreationists.

The lake had one obvious spring, but the hidden ones are the lurking dangers for winter recreationists.

As Southeast Michigan plunges back into winter, the Coast Guard wants you to be aware of the following ice safety information:

  • If a victim that goes through the ice does not drown, cold water can kill quickly.
  • Immersion into cold water quickly leads to hypothermia and death can result in minutes.
  • Fluctuating temperatures across the region may cause ice, that is already unpredictable and dangerous, to become even more so.
  • Blankets of snow can hide thin ice and at times, can keep ice thin.

MY MESSAGE TO YOU:  Be safe and never assume ice is solid in one area because it appears solid in another area. That mistake can be fatal. Ice safety is up to you!

ICE SAFETY INFORMATION FROM OAKLAND COUNTY SHERIFFS OFFICE: http://www.oakgov.com/sheriff/Pages/safety_tips/ice_safety.aspx

ICE SAFETY INFORMATION FROM MICHIGAN DNR:                                            http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,7-153-10364_39488_39489-160657–,00.html

Text and photos by Jonathan Schechter, Nature Education Writer. Visit  www.oakgov.com/parks for details and maps on all 13 Oakland Parks and winter outdoor recreation opportunities. Originally published on January 15, 2015.

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