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How Safe Is Safe?  at Cabela's

How Safe Is Safe?

Author: Frank Ross

As far as the eye could see, a frozen surface beckoned in whispered tones - come and fish; it's safe.

Ice always looks the same from the surface.
Standing in the ice-encrusted marshy reeds on the edge of the lake, it was almost too much to endure. As far as the eye could see, a frozen surface beckoned in whispered tones -come and fish; it's safe.

Serious ice auguring anglers hear these whispers every time they drive past a frozen pond or lake. Problem is, sometimes the ice will lie to you. The question is, how can you tell?

Whether you're wanting to go ice-fishing or ice skating, you need to know if it's safe before you find out the hard way.

The truth is, according to the Minnesota DNR, ice is never "totally" safe. With a little common sense and some intelligent precautions, ice-fishing can be enjoyed throughout the winter. Although the most dangerous periods are at the beginning and end of the season when ice is just being formed or starting the spring breaking up, danger still exists in mid-season ice.

Dave Bentley manages an ice-fishing operation on Lake Mille Lacs, putting out about 30 icehouses for the season that runs from December through February. During the peak of the season, Lake Mille Lacs could pass for the mold from which the movie Grumpy Old Men was formed. At the peak of the season, between 5 and 8 thousand icehouses will be positioned in what amounts to small towns complete with signs and plowed streets.

I talked with Dave this afternoon from his operations office at Eddy's Resort. Like other ice anglers, he is sitting on the edge of his chair and watching the weather. "By Minnesota standards the weather has been moderate so far, and right now we have about 7-8" of ice. We need 12-15" before we put the houses out. If we get several nights below zero, then we'll get enough ice to start putting houses out," he said.

Even with the countless hours that Dave and his staff spend on the ice, they are still very cautions, even when it's 3 feet thick. "There are some areas that you want to avoid in any lake," he said.

"Stay away from known rock piles and submerged points. When there isn't any snow on the surface of the ice, rocks will absorb the heat and the warmer water will cause enough of a current to weaken the ice. Around points you will always have a current, especially in areas between two points. "Again," he stressed, "current will create weak areas in the ice."

Watch for either light or dark spots on the ice. Both irregularities can spell trouble. "Light spots can be caused by snow wicking water up through cracks in the ice. The surface will look like white scrambled eggs. As the water is wicked up, it freezes and blowing snow attaches to the frozen water creating the effect. What happens, is the ice is weakened where the water is wicked up and it becomes unstable," he said.

While these areas can vary dramatically in size, they are comparatively small in nature when measured next to pressure ridges.

"All lakes have pressure ridges. They are most notable in lakes that have bays. They are formed where bays join the main body of the lake. The bay ice stays solid because it doesn't have room to expand and contract. Think of it like plate tectonics. You have two separate entities pushing against each other. Along the ridge, the ice fractures in pie shaped pieces. Sometimes it fractures outward, and sometimes it fractures inward. Outward fractures are more dangerous. Where there is a fractured wedge, the ice is unstable, and if you put enough weight on it, the ice will tip and dump you under the surface. The real danger is falling under the ice and having it close back up. If that happens in deep water, where you can't push your way out -you're done for," he added.

"Main ridges have fingers or cracks that run for miles on Mille Lacs. The important thing to keep in mind about ridges is that they can't be defined by a straight line between two points. Sometimes they are found on either side of the straight line that runs between a bay and the main body," he said.

What's easiest in life is not always safest. This is especially true on ice.

"When you're out on the lake, you might think it's easiest to walk on the snow, but that's the most dangerous place," he cautioned. Snow forms an insulating blanket, and the ice will never get colder than freezing, or 32 degrees. Bare ice will drop down to temperatures that mirror the ambient temperatures and freeze much deeper.

Another area of concern is created by snow cones. According to Bentley, snow cones are created when anglers auger a hole and pile up the shavings next to their hole. When they leave, the snow cone forms what is in effect a snow fence. When the wind blows, snow is piled up behind the cone. If the cone is upwind of the hole, then the snow will pile up in, and over the hole, insulating the area and preventing it from refreezing properly. The unsuspecting angler that comes along later can step into the hole and find himself wet to the waist, or worse.

All of this said, should you stay in the house until spring? Certainly not. Just use your head and be alert to irregularities in the ice. Always check before you go out on any surface, no matter how cold it has been.

Here are a few tips on ice safety that are imperative to keep in mind when listening to the siren call of frozen water.

4" of new clear ice is the minimum thickness for foot travel and ice fishing. 5" is the minimum thickness for snowmobiles or ATV's. 8-12" is the minimum thickness for cars or small trucks.

Just remember these are only guidelines. Keep in mind that there are many variables in the thickness and quality of ice. Driving a car or truck on ice, especially early or late in the season is an accident looking for a place to happen.

1. Check with a local bait shop or anglers in the area to ask about known problem ice.

2. Refrain from driving on ice whenever possible. If you must drive a vehicle on the ice, be prepared to leave it in a hurry. Keep your windows rolled down, your seat belt unbuckled, and discuss an emergency plan with your passengers.

3. Don't overdrive your snowmobile or ATV's headlights. Even at slow speeds, it will take much greater distances to stop on ice. Accidents often occur when vehicle operators overdrive their headlights and are unable to stop when open water is spotted. Unfortunately, many of these accidents are fatal.

4. Always wear a life vest when you're walking or driving a snowmobile or ATV. You can wear it under your coat, or on the outside -just wear it. You can also wear the new floatation snowmobile suits that are available. Never wear a life vest while riding in an enclosed vehicle. If you find yourself suddenly under water and inside the vehicle, the vest can make it very difficult for you to get out. In an enclosed vehicle, it is best to have the vest next to you where it can be easily found and controlled until you are outside.

5. New ice is usually stronger than old ice. As ice ages, the bond between the crystals makes it more dangerous and weaker even if melting has not occurred.

6. Wind speeds influence ice formation. Light winds speed up the formation, but strong winds force water from beneath the ice and can decay the edges.

7. Snow can insulate the ice and keep it strong. It can also insulate it to keep it from freezing properly. These effects depend upon when the snow covers the ice while its forming. Take serious precautions when walking on snow covered ice, and determine its thickness before attempting to walk on the surface. A portable power drill with a 6" bit is very handy for checking ice thickness. Snow can hide cracks and thin areas, so checking the depth in one area does not mean that the entire pond or lake is safe.

8. Slush is a danger sign that indicates the ice is no longer freezing from the bottom. It also indicates weak or deteriorated ice.

Breaking Through
If you or a companion break through the ice, the most important thing to remember is don't panic. If you are on the surface, attempting to rescue someone, keep your wits about you and think your plan through before attempting anything. Most importantly, don't run up to the edge of the hole and try to pull them out. More often than not, the ice will give way again, and two people will be in the water with no one to help.

Lie down on the ice and try to throw something to them such as a rope, jumper cables or a long tree limb. Lying down on the ice will lower your center of gravity, spread out your weight, and give you much better traction than standing on the soles of two slippery boots.

If you don't have anything to throw to the victim, call 911 immediately. Ice fishing is definitely a time to carry a cell phone if you have one. Once the victim is rescued, seek medical attention immediately. People that are subjected to sever cold may appear fine only to suffer a potentially fatal condition called "after drop." This condition occurs, when cold blood that is pooled in the body's extremities starts to circulate after the victim begins to warm up.

If you fall in the water, and go under the surface, you must swim for the dark spot and not the light. Once you're back on the surface of the water, the first thing you need to do is turn toward the direction you came from. Place your hands and arms on the unbroken surface of the ice.

A couple of ice picks are very handy to have on your person if you fall into the water. You can use the pick to secure a grip on the ice and pull yourself free. With wet clothes, which usually consist of bibs, extra layers and a coat, you may have to pull an extra 50 to 80 pounds of weight out of the water. Picks can be carried on your belt in a sheath for just such an emergency. Buy picks with wooden handles so that they will float in case you drop them. Two 6" lengths of a broom handle with sharp nails driven into them will also work.

Work your way forward on the ice by kicking your feet and pulling at the same time. If the ice breaks again, maintain your direction and slide forward again. Once you regain the surface of the ice, don't stand up. Instead, roll away from the hole to spread out your weight until you are on solid ice. This sounds simple, but execution will take all of your strength and mental toughness. Once you're out of the water, seek medical assistance immediately.

There has never been a fish caught through a hole in the ice that is worth an extended swim or worse. When you hear those whispered calls to come out and fish, remember ice will lie to you and Blind Faith was a rock band in the 60's.

For more information on fishing Minnesota's Lake Mille Lacs, call Dave Bentley at 320-532-3657. For additional information about fishing other lakes in Minnesota or any other state, check out our State by State Information.

Author Frank Ross
Frank Ross grew up on a lake in Florida, where fishing and hunting were second nature. He has pursued his passion from the jungles of South America to the northern reaches of the Arctic Circle and most points in between. With a background in newspapers, the wire services and magazines that began in 1970, Frank brings a unique perspective to his work with Cabela's. He is an award-winning photographer with a flair for getting to the bottom line of every story.

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