Many of our winter activities take place on frozen lakes and ponds here in Maine as well as in many other cold weather states. There are obvious hazards associated with ice related activities. Most occur in the early winter and early spring, but it is important to remember that ice is never really safe!
There are several steps you can take to reduce the hazards but always keep in mind that ice a foot thick in one area can be only an inch thick just a few yards away.
Generally speaking, you should have at least 4 inches of clear solid ice to walk on; snowmobiles and ATV’s need at least 5 inches. It is never recommended that cars and trucks be driven over ice and in some places doing so is against the law. If it is necessary to drive on a frozen lake or pond , you should look for at least 8-12 inches of clear solid ice. In all cases avoid ice with air bubbles, ice near running water, wet snow covered ice and dark ice.
Choose small or shallow bodies of water if appropriate for your activity. Large lakes are prone to develop weak pressure ridges. Wind and wave action can break up ice quickly on large bodies of water.
Be prepared for the potential of falling through the ice:
- Make sure you have an auger, ice chisel or axe to test the thickness of the ice periodically as you cross any lake or pond.
- Dress appropriately and consider the potential of falling through the ice.
- Never wear anything that would restrict your ability to swim or stay afloat.
- Avoid hip boots or waders that can fill quickly with water and weigh you down.
- Lightweight ice rescue picks are available that thread though your jacket sleeves - attaching much like a child’s mittens. These can be indispensible for pulling yourself out of the water onto the ice.
- Carry a plastic whistle to signal for help; the shock of the cold water can literally take your breath away and you may find it difficult to call for help.
- You may want to wear a life jacket. While it is never advised to drive vehicles onto ice be aware that a life jacket in an enclosed vehicle could hamper your ability to escape if the vehicle breaks through the ice. If for some reason you find it necessary to drive a vehicle on the ice, always drive with the windows or a door open for a quick escape.
If you are carrying a sled, attach a long cord or rope to it so you can try to pull someone up to solid ice from a safe distance. Inflatable buoys or seat cushions can aid in keeping someone afloat until help arrives.
In the event you do break through the ice don’t try to climb out or you’ll likely just break through the ice again. Lay both arms on the unbroken ice and try to get your body horizontal. Kick hard, as if trying to swim up onto the ice. Do not stand up after getting onto solid ice but rather keep your weight spread out and roll or crawl back in the direction you came from. Remember, time is essential - within 10 to 15 minutes hypothermia will be setting in and your body will no longer be able to respond.
The winters can be long in Maine and outdoor activities are often just the thing to beat the winter blues, but please be safe about it and you’ll be around to enjoy spring!