Ice safety has been on the minds of many north Jersey residents since the recent tragedy at Budd Lake, where two teens lost their lives after falling through the ice. Despite calls to do so, many area officials were hesitant to take a more active role in policing ice. They know what many ice sports enthusiasts know, it is not possible to declare ice completely safe.
There are too many variables to guarantee that lake ice is safe. River ice is even more fickle. The state of New Jersey issues no guidelines regarding ice thickness and safety, but many other states do. In Minnesota, where ice sports are a way of life, their Department of Natural Resources says that 4 inches is the minimum to walk on. They add that 5 inches will support a snowmobile or ATV and 8" or more inches will support a small automobile. Alaska's Department of Fish and Game is even more conservative, suggesting that there be at least five to six to inches of ice before people consider taking to the ice. To add to the confusion, some sources suggest three inches of ice is safe enough for people to walk on and the Army Corps of Engineers suggests two inches is OK for a person on skis. Though you'll find some ice sports enthusiasts willing to go out on two or three inches, most wait for four or more inches before they will venture out.
A general rule of thumb is that skating requires thicker ice than simply walking on it. The weight of a skater is focused on a very small area and the pressure used in pushing off is significant. Those factors increase the chances of breaking through, so if you're ice skating you will want to err on the side of thicker ice.
It also must be remembered that those estimates are for new ice. Late season ice is honeycombed with air and not nearly as strong. Anyone venturing onto the ice should know that there are often variations in ice depth on the same body of water. Lake and river ice can be thick enough to support a car in one spot and only inches thick a short distance away. A person can be standing on ten inches of ice only yards away from open water .When ice is newly formed it is usually thicker near shore and in coves than out on the middle of the lake, but later in the season the ice will often be thinnest near shore and in shallower coves.Thin sections may also be present wherever there is moving water such as were it enters or leaves a lake. More dangerous are underwater springs that won't be readily apparent. Furthermore, snow can insulate ice, weaken it and conceal obvious danger spots. With all of those variables you can see why ice can never be pronounced completely safe.
The sound of cracking ice isn't always a sign of danger. Ice cracks naturally as it thins and thickens. However if the ice starts to crack where you are stepping, it's time to slowly and carefully retreat. Gently laying down will spread your weight over the ice and reduce the probability of breaking through. You can then crawl to safety keeping your weight spread on all fours.
There are precautions you can take to reduce the element of danger. First, never go out on ice without testing it first. Using an auger, ice chisel or axe you can cut a hole in a shallow spot near shore. Make certain the water is no more than two or three feet deep so if it breaks you'll only wind up with wet pants. If the thickness appears sufficient then slowly move out testing the ice as you go. If you see others already on the ice, it doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea to be out there, so always test.
Make sure you are in good physical shape. If you do fall through you will exhaust yourself quickly
if you are not physically sound.
Though the idea of ice fishermen sipping brandy to stay warm is a common one, stay away from alcoholic beverages when on the ice. Alcohol will actually make you feel colder and could cloud your judgment.
The presence of open water doesn't necessarily mean the ice is unsafe. Sometimes a lake is frozen solid in one spot and unfrozen in others. If you do see open water stay at least 100 feet away from it.
Another precaution is to carry ice claws (also called ice spikes). These are two ice pick-like devices tied together with a string. The string is run around your body and through each sleeve. The picks are stored inside each jacket sleeve where you hopefully will never need them, but they are readily available if you do. Of course, never walk on ice alone. If the ice is the least bit questionable, make sure your party is well spaced in the event one person falls through the others are able to help.
Keep a whistle readily accessible, either around your neck or in an outside jacket pocket. If you need to call for help the sound of a whistle will carry much farther than your voice.
Don't feel foolish wearing a PFD under your jacket. If you do fall in the gasp reflex when you hit the water can drown you immediately. A PFD will help you keep your head above water in those crucial first seconds. Additionally, you will become unconscious and drown well before the cold water kills you. If you can't get out, if you are still floating it may give you a wider window of opportunity for rescue.
Modern PFDs are not too bulky and on a cold winter day you may actually appreciate the extra insulation they provide. There are also some outdoor wear manufacturers who build PFDs into jackets. These "float coats" can be expensive, but are a wise investment if you will be spending a lot of time on the ice.
Ice sports are a fun way to enjoy the winter weather. By taking the proper precautions you can significantly reduce the chances of disaster. Next, what to do if someone falls through.