Through the Ice

Trent Ernst, Editor

Midway through the winter season, there are already stories abounding about people and equipment going through the ice in the Peace Region. A few months ago, a truck went through the ice at One Island Lake, one of a rumoured three so far this year. There’s also talk of a truck going through the ice at Swan Lake, a snowmobiler going through the ice along the Murray River, and an ice fisherman going through the ice on Quality Lake.

As much as we Canadians love to skate, toboggan, snowmobile, and fish, ice over bodies of water can pose some serious, life threatening dangers.

According to data published last year by the Canada Safety Council (CSC), in the first decade of this century, there were 337 people who died in Canada from falling through the ice. There were 150 deaths from falling through the ice during non-motorized activities on the ice, 246 deaths involving snowmobiles, and 41 deaths involving other vehicles on ice.

Snowmobiles accounted for over half of all ice immersion fatalities, and alcohol was a factor in 59 per cent of these cases.

Jack Smith, president of the CSC says that alcohol is a double whammy in cold weather. “When going out on to ice surfaces it is best to avoid alcohol or any other substance that may impair your judgment, especially when snowmobiling,” says Smith. “Alcohol may also speed up the development of hypothermia.”

Another danger, says Smith, is snowmobiling across the ice at night. If someone has been out earlier ice fishing, says Smith, or if there are any other holes in the ice, they can be difficult to see. “This is a frequent cause of snowmobile drownings.”

The colour of ice, He says, may be an indication of its strength. “Clear blue ice is strongest. White opaque or snow ice is half as strong as blue ice. Opaque ice is formed by wet snow freezing on the ice. Smith says if the ice is grey, keep off. “The grayness indicates the presence of water.”

Heavy snowfall years like this year mean that ice does not get as thick. While the snow itself can help distribute the weight of vehicles and walkers, always make sure to test the thickness of the ice.

Generally, ice that is less than 7 cm (3 inches) thick should be avoided, though it is generally safe for cross country skiing. Better is ice that is 10 cm (4 inches) thick, which can support the weight of most anyone walking across it (though the guidelines say 200 lbs). At 12 cm (5 inches), the ice is thick enough to support a snowmobile and rider, to about 800 lbs.

For people looking to take a vehicle out on the ice, it should be at least a foot thick before going out with a small vehicle, and close to a foot and a half before getting out with a truck.

While most people don’t think about PFDs when ice fishing or snowmobiling, it is not a bad idea. Safety equipment (ice axe, fire starter kit and rope being among the most essential) is also recommended.

For vehicles driving out onto the ice, says Smith, “open your windows and unlock your doors to allow you to quickly escape from your vehicle.”

No matter how solid it might appear, no ice is safe ice. Ice thickness varies across a lake. Avoid areas where there is flow (feeder streams and springs) or in-water obstructions (bridges pilings, docks, and dam structures), since ice is usually thinner around these objects. Also, underwater springs can cause weak spots in the ice. Gwillim, for instance, is famous for having ice that is a foot thick in some place and only a few centimeters thick in others.

Some other safety times include:

•Always fish with a partner or in an area where several other anglers are present.

•Let others know exactly where you are going and when you plan to return.

•Place a cell phone in a plastic bag to protect it from moisture in case you get wet.

•Always take along a throw cushion or wear a personal flotation device in case of immersion.

If the worst happens and you fall in to the water, remain calm. If you can, slip off boots. If you have ice awls, use them to pull yourself out of the water. If you don’t, try swimming out by letting your body rise up, then crawling up. The more surface you can spread your weight across, the more chance you’ll have of getting out. Once you get out, stay flat and distribute your weight across the ice. If you have dry clothes, change. Otherwise, keep the wet clothes on, which will keep you at least somewhat insulated.

If you see someone fall in, don’t approach, but help by reaching with a pole or stick, throw a rope, or, if available, row a boat.

If a vehicle goes through the ice, it is the owner’s responsibility to have the vehicle removed and any contamination cleaned up.

Report the incident as a spill to the Spill Reporting Line (1-800-663-3456) as soon as possible.

There is no three-day grace period. The timing for removal varies from case to case and depends on a number of factors including the type of vehicle involved, whether it was carrying cargo, local weather conditions, and the environmental sensitivity of the lake.

The owner or ICBC should be consulting with the Ministry of Environment (MoE) to determine a plan to remove the vehicle safely and in a way that minimizes further environmental damage. In cases like this, the Ministry of Environment balances the potential for further damage to the environment against the safety risk to salvage crews attempting to remove the vehicle. The owner can be fined under the Environmental Management Act depending on the extent of impact to the environment. The province may also recover costs from the owner if a provincial environmental emergency response is needed.