It was more than a mile back to the fallen tree where I had crossed the frozen stream. There were two choices: retrace a long route and work back up the other side, or take a chance that the ice would support a crossing. It had been bitterly cold for the past several days, but there was open water before that. On close inspection, the ice looked solid enough, but would it hold? The first cautious step seemed secure, and a few more steps were reassuring. Since the creek was only 3 feet deep, I decided to try it.
Halfway across the 30-foot distance, there was a sickening sound like that of a splitting watermelon and a silver crack streaked across the frozen surface. The ice began to sag, and water welled onto my boots. I goose-stepped across the last few yards and somehow the ice held, leaving me with nothing worse than wet feet. The risk, though not life-threatening, had been foolish, and I was lucky I wasn’t soaked and faced with possible hypothermia on a long walk back to the car.
Among outdoorsmen, ice fishers may be most familiar with navigating frozen waters, but sooner or later, most hunters and hikers will also have occasion to venture onto ice. There is often a question about its safety. Knowing a few facts about ice can help avoid potentially dangerous situations.
Know Your Ice
Ice thickness alone will not guarantee safe passage, unless it is clear and hard and of uniform depth. A 2-inch thickness of clear, blue ice should be considered a minimum to support the average-sized man. If two or more persons are together, they should stay at least 20 feet apart on 2-inch ice to lessen the chances of breaking through.
Some types of ice should be avoided. If air bubbles can be seen in the structure, it is dangerous to walk on. Gray or white ice having a pebbly or opaque surface indicates that it formed during a snowstorm. Microscopic bubbles of trapped air weaken the tensile strength of this ice by as much as 50 percent.
Examine ice extra closely after a recent snow and look out for "honeycombed" ice.
Honeycombed ice is particularly dangerous to ice fishermen. Warm weather causes surface melting, forming shallow pools on the ice surface. Since water is heavier than ice, it leaks downward, creating “honeycomb” fractures. Even thick ice can be dangerous when this occurs.
Vegetation sticking up through ice spells trouble. Plant stems are partly air, and they weaken the ice structure. Exposed stems also absorb heat from sunlight and warm up the surrounding ice on sunny days. Areas having plant stems should be avoided, even though they often indicate fairly shallow water.
Beware of color changes in ice. Water currents or underground springs can melt and eat away ice from below. When ice fishing on reservoirs, be respectful of areas where creeks enter the lake. Also, since most streams and rivers have some degree of current, don’t automatically assume that extended cold weather ensures a safe crossing. If crossings must be made, choose the widest and deepest points where currents are slowest and ice is deepest.
Lake geography may suggest some things about ice. The deeper the water and the longer it takes to freeze, the safer the ice will be. Expect the thickest ice along north shorelines where wind exposure from storms is minimized. Shady coves also typically have thick ice.
Regardless of the body of water, never take chances on marginal ice. Ice fishers are used to the alarming sound of splitting ice on warm days when the ice is still thick and safe, but the sound should be a heads-up for possible problems. If ice cracks while you’re walking across it, it may be helpful to slide your feet with toes pointing inward. This distributes your weight over the whole foot and reduces the impact of your footsteps. As a last resort on cracking ice, lie down to distribute your weight over a larger area and roll toward safety. Avoid thin ice altogether, especially where the possibility of deep water exists. Pay attention to ice conditions and avoid potential trouble spots.
Have A Plan
Never risk ice like this, unless over extremely shallow water.
Finally, have a plan to reach safety in the event of a break-through. Without aid, it is almost impossible to climb out of water onto slippery adjacent ice. Exhaustion and hypothermia can quickly kill a stranded swimmer. If shoreline proximity permits, tie a safety rope to a tree. On open ice, drill a nearby safety ice hole into which a pegged safety line can be secured. Always fish with a partner, and check with local lake authorities as to the safety status of ice before fishing.