People take a risk any time they head out onto the ice, but knowing the conditions could help each person make an informed decision while enjoying the outing, said Ryan Walt, a boating and watercraft safety manager for the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission.
Walt supervises the statewide swift water and ice rescue program that trains just under 5,000 first-responders every year on the proper techniques to save lives.
With Cumberland County facing a lengthy cold snap, anglers, skaters and outdoorsmen are taking advantage of frozen lakes and ponds. But there are always risks, no matter how cold it gets.
First and foremost, people should avoid venturing out on ice that has formed over moving water such as a stream or the Susquehanna River.
Water moving in a current can cause jams and fractures to form and can make the thickness of the ice less consistent in places. Also, if you fall through the ice, there is a much greater risk of being washed under the mantle and, at that point, you have no escape, Walt said.
“Never go on the ice alone,” he said. “Always let people know what your plans are and when you plan to return.”
Survey the ice
When arriving at the edge of a frozen pond or lake, always visually survey the ice. In particular, look for open water areas and signs of recent changes in the water level.
These signs include ice sloping down from the bank and wet areas on the ice. The wet areas could mean the water rose or there was a recent rain that weakened the ice.
Beware of ice around partially submerged objects such as trees, brush, embankments or structures. These objects tend to absorb heat from sunlight that radiates through the surrounding water, causing the ice to thin.
Ice along the shore tends to be the first to form and the first to thaw. A mantle that may be strong enough to hold a man’s weight in the morning could be weak by the afternoon.
People should also listen for loud cracks or booms coming from the ice. Those sounds could indicate the ice is deteriorating or that the water is freezing within the confined area of the pond or lake.
“New ice is stronger than old ice and usually has a blue tint,” Walt said. “Remember ice thickness is not consistent across the whole body of water.”
General guidelines suggest a minimum of 4 inches is a safe thickness for ice, but that is not a hard-set fact.
Anglers should use an ice staff to probe ahead. If the staff punches through the surface, they should retreat back to the shore slowly.
Anglers should always carry a pair of ice awls to rescue themselves if they fall through the ice. A life jacket or a float coat should also be worn anytime you venture out on the ice.
“If you feel the ice giving way, drop to the ice and lay on your stomach,” Walt said. This distributes the weight of the person over a greater surface area reducing the risk of a breakthrough.
“You can slowly crawl back to the shore,” Walt said. “If you fall in, the main thing is to try and keep your head above the water.”
The extreme cold of the water can lead to an involuntary gasp where the person takes in a lot of water at once. This increases the risk of panic and drowning.
“There is the 1-10-1 rule,” Walt said. “If you fall in, you have one minute to regain your composure and catch your breath. You have 10 minutes of meaningful movement and you have one hour before full blown hypothermia.”
“Meaningful movement” means using what leverage you can to either crawl or roll yourself out of the fissure in the ice. If that is possible, hunker down and crawl back to the shore the way you came.
Full blown hypothermia will lower the body temperature to the point where the person loses consciousness. At that point, the risk of going under the water increases. To forestall that risk, Walt suggested the person dip their forearms into the water and then stretch their forearms onto the ice mantle.
This would cause the arms to freeze to the ice and keep the person from slipping under the water.