A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ice is Nice ... When It's Safe

Enjoy the ice, for God's sake! But make sure it's safe.
A few tips for staying safe on the ice

Depending on what the weather throws at us, late-fall/early-winter can be some of the best weeks to enjoy the ice.

In a lucky year, a week or so of snowless arctic cold can set up perfect ice-skating conditions.  It’s happened a few times in recent memory—when the ice is like a sheet of glass and you can slap a puck clear across the pond. Even better when you can see through the ice, fish and all.And all winter long, the ice can be great for ice-fishing, skiing, snowshoeing and all sorts of other fun things.

But fun on the ice comes with responsibility to make sure you’re safe on the ice. So, here are a few tips:

  • Be patient/be safe. Wait for cold temps and safe ice thicknesses to set up before you venture out.
  • Assume all ice is unsafe until you determine that it is safe. So, be prepared to check the ice thickness using an ice chisel or an auger.
  • Check the thickness in several places and continue to check the farther you get from the shoreline. Remember that ice doesn’t form in uniform thickness across a water body. Currents from inlets, outlets, springs and channels can limit ice buildup. So, while the ice can be a foot thick across most of a pond, it could be a deadly 1 inch thick near an inlet.
  • Ice conditions change constantly over the course of a winter. Warm spells can create slush, which then re-freezes and becomes weak. Heavy snow can create a layer of slush between the ice and snow, which can also make ice conditions weak and unpredictable.
  • Beware of the ice near shorelines. Warmth from the shoreline can weaken or thaw ice on the edges, making it tricky to get off or on the ice.
  • Watch out for tricky spots, like honeycombed, clear or squishy ice. These could be weak spots.
  • Smaller ponds tend to set up sooner than rivers and large lakes, where currents and waves can keep ice from forming.
  • Avoid gathering in large groups on the ice, especially in early winter.
  • Don’t drive trucks or cars on the ice. The consequences can be humiliating and expensive, if not deadly.
  • Don’t panic if you do fall through the ice. According to the N.H. Fish and Game Department, you should move back to where you fell in, where you know the ice was solid. Lay both arms on the unbroken ice and kick hard to climb back on. When you get back on the ice, roll away from the hole until you reach solid ice.  A pair of ice picks can save your life. Make them or buy them and keep them handy.
  • Rules of thumb: According to the U.S. Army’s Cold Region Research Laboratory in Hanover, here are a few rules of thumb for safe ice: You should have at least 6 inches of hard ice for individual foot travel and 8 to 10 inches of hard ice for snowmobile or ATV.
A number of folks I know are skittish about the ice for one reason or another. Some have heard ice make those thunderous and wondrous cracking noises and assumed that sound means the ice is unsafe. Often, though, those are the sounds of ice thickening up, cracking as it expands. 

Once the ice sets up and you’ve determined it’s safe, get out there and enjoy it!