There is No Such Thing as 100-Percent Safe Ice

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There is No Such Thing as 100-Percent Safe IceI’m not sure whether I fall into the majority or minority on this issue, but literally speaking, I flat out don’t like ice over water.

The only two places I like ice are at the bottom of my drinking glass or at the hockey rink – you never hear of a hockey player falling through the ice. We’ve all heard that popping and cracking sound that ice makes when you walk on it. If you’re like me that sound makes you cringe. Whether ice fishing myself or walking out on shelf ice to check a license, I’ve never truly felt safe on ice.

On a recent patrol along the Salmon River, I noticed ice starting to build at the slow-moving stretch of Deadwater. As I continued my patrol down the river my thoughts turned to how an area recently over-flowing with hunters and anglers will get a break from the action for the next couple of months.

There is No Such Thing as 100-Percent Safe IceBut I’ve become accustomed to seeing anglers who have the fishing bug no matter what the time of year. I know that I can always find a few hardy souls willing to venture out onto the shore ice for steelhead or ice fishing out on Williams Lake for a limit of rainbow trout.

So when is ice safe? Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources Website offers the following: “There really is no sure answer. You can’t judge the strength of ice just by its appearance, age, thickness, temperature, or whether or not the ice is covered with snow. Strength is based on all these factors – plus the depth of water under the ice, size of the water body, water chemistry and currents, the distribution of the load on the ice, and local climatic conditions.”

Experts recommend a minimum of 4-inch thick ice for walking. Ice safety guidelines also recommend a minimum of 5 inches of new, clear ice for snowmobiles, and 8 to 12 inches for a small-to medium-sized automobile, pickup or SUV.

Here are some additional facts I found on Minnesota’s DNR website about ice safety:

  • New ice is usually stronger than old ice. Four inches of clear, newly formed ice may support one person on foot, while a foot or more of old, partially thawed ice may not.
  • ce seldom freezes uniformly. It may be a foot thick in one location and only an inch or two just a few feet away.
  • Ice formed over flowing water and currents is often dangerous. This is especially true near streams, bridges and culverts. Also, the ice on outside river bends is usually weaker due to the undermining effects of the faster current.
  • The insulating effect of snow slows down the freezing process. The extra weight also reduces how much weight the ice sheet can support. Also, ice near shore can be weaker than ice that is farther out.
  •  Booming and cracking ice isn’t necessarily dangerous. It only means that the ice is expanding and contracting as the temperature changes.

Every winter I check or hear of someone fishing on the river that fell through the shelf-ice. The outcomes of these incidents vary, but all are serious and potentially life threatening. Speaking from experience, I can say that in addition to extremely cold and shocking, it is a very scary experience.

I would urge anyone who plans on spending time out on the ice to research measures you can take to ensure survival of yourself or someone else falling through the ice. Remember how important it is to recognize signs of unsafe ice, and stay safe while venturing out this winter.

Matt Sheppard is the senior conservation officer in the Salmon Region.