Tragically, every year many people die in ice-related incidents. When ice fishing this year, make sure you’re prepared with the following information on common ice myths and learn some self-rescue methods. Remember, ice is never 100 percent safe, so exercise caution at all times!
John Blaicher, ice safety expert and consultant for the Insurance Bureau of Canada, explains there are many myths about ice safety.
The belief that cold weather makes solid, thick, safe ice is one myth. Temperature fluctuations, wind, a layer of snow on the ice, water current, and fluctuating water levels can all weaken ice, Blaicher explains. He notes ice doesn’t form in a uniform thickness everywhere on a body of water either, another common misconception.
"Snow helps ice form quickly," is another false notion, he says. Snow insulates ice and in some instances, a snowfall even warms and melts existing ice.
Think all thick ice is strong? Think again, advises Blaicher. Ice containing layers of snow or water, spring ice, or ice that has thawed and frozen several times is often weak, and should not be trusted to support weight.
The strongest ice is clear, black, blue, or green ice. The Lifesaving Society, and many other North American water safety authorities, recommend a minimum thickness of 4 inches of new, clear ice for a single person to ice fish upon.
Another misconception is the better you can swim the better your chances of rescuing yourself should you fall through the ice.
"The reality is swimming skills are only a small part of an ice-related rescue," says Blaicher, who explains the proper self-rescue process as follows.
"What kills most people that fall in cold water is not hypothermia, but drowning because they can’t keep their head above water," Blaicher says. "In the first minute, the goal is to get one’s breathing under control as the body experiences cold shock."
The initial plunge in cold water results in breathing difficulties, beginning with a large involuntary gasp. Staying calm, controlling your breathing, and calling for help should be the first things you do before attempting to get out.
"Once breathing is under control, the next 10 minutes are critical to use your big motor muscles and try to get out of the water," Blaicher says. "In cold water, the brain sends signals to redirect blood flow to the body’s core and starts to shut down blood flow to the extremities of the arms and legs."
One-piece flotation suits provide thermal protection and flotation.
Wearing flotation garments and being buoyant dramatically improves one’s ability to breathe, swim, and lift oneself out of the water, he adds, but time is of the essence. Ice anglers are best to wear suits providing floatation and thermal protection, such as Mustang’s Integrity Floatation Suit, or Helly Hansen’s Alpha One Piece Suit.
To get out of the water and onto safe ice, do the following. Kick vigorously into a horizontal, floating position, and swim in the direction you came; this ice already supported your weight. At the edge, reach forward onto the ice, gently lift your torso to drain some water from your clothing and reduce your weight. Having ice picks gives you extra traction.
Next, kick into a horizontal position; thrust yourself up onto the ice like a seal using your arms and legs to propel yourself forward. Do not stand up. Raise your upper body so water drains from your clothing to reduce weight. Look ahead to make sure you are going in the right direction. Remain on your stomach, crawling forward. Staying flat evenly distributes weight, lessening your chances of falling through again. Don’t stand up until you reach ground or solid ice.
If you are unable to get out of the water, the clock is ticking.
"In ice cold water, the average person has upwards of 60 minutes of survival time before the heart stops or unconsciousness sets in due to hypothermia," says Blaicher, who cautions there are many influencing factors, affecting this estimate.
John Blaicher demonstrates the importance of ice picks for a self-rescue. (Note: photo courtesy of Insurance Bureau of Canada)
Get Dry, Warm
If you do make it out of the water, Blaicher suggests getting to a shelter you can find in less than 30 minutes, or remaining and protecting yourself from the elements. In each case, ring out wet clothing and change into dry clothing if available. If seeking shelter, keep moving to increase heat production, but don’t exhaust yourself. If staying put, wrap yourself in some kind of windbreak or insulation. If you can, get off the ice and build a fire to warm yourself.
At no time should an untrained individual attempt an ice rescue, says Blaicher. Call 911 for help and get assistance from trained professionals.
Finally, consider carrying a few safety items when ice fishing. The Life Saving Society recommends carrying a small personal safety kit when traveling on ice. It should include: a lighter, waterproof matches, a magnesium fire starter, a pocketknife, a compass, and a whistle. Keep a cellular phone in a waterproof, soft-plastic pouch, too. Ice picks and rope are also worthwhile to carry. Carrying spare clothes in your vehicle is also good practice.
This winter, heed Blaicher’s advise and exercise caution at all times around ice. If there’s any doubt of the ice’s safety, stay off!
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