Don’t slip up when it comes to thin-ice safety

When I was a kid, we had a wintertime game called “sliding.” It was pretty simple: you found a frozen pond, cleared the snow, got a running start and competed to see who could get the best “slide” distance. No skates were allowed.
We were playing that game, one frigid day, when my turn came up. I took off as fast as I could and completed my slide. I’d had a good one and, instead of turning around and walking back, I began to run to the nearer shoreline where we had a fire burning.
That’s when the ice collapsed underneath me, and I dropped in over my head.
I was lucky that I was very close to shore. I grabbed an overhanging tree branch and was able to pull myself out. It was a long walk home and my pants and coat were frozen stiff. I remember standing on a hot-air register to defrost my feet and the intense burning I felt as they warmed.
That experience was quite a scare, and I quickly developed a respect for any frozen body of water. Poor judgment, inexperience or a laissez-faire attitude can be harshly rewarded with terminal effectiveness.
With this year’s weather dipping to the zero mark, ice making has been in full swing, with many folks reaching for ice skates and ice augers. Snowmobiles are motoring about the countryside, with some daring to travel across frozen ponds and lakes.
It’s time to consider what makes ice safe for play and travel.
Minnesotans, with their land of 10,000 lakes and subzero temperatures, are experts when dealing with icy activities.
Their Department of Natural Resources offers some safety suggestions:
• They recommend that the minimum thicknesses for ice safety are:
Four inches of new clear ice for travel on foot, 5 inches for snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, and 8 to 12 inches for cars or small trucks.
• Check for known thin-ice areas by contacting parks or bait shops. Test the thickness yourself using an ice chisel or a cordless drill with a 6-inch or longer bit.
• Consider wearing a life vest or inflatable and carry a pair of ice-safety picks or a pair of screwdrivers attached by a string. It’s difficult to pull yourself back onto the surface of unbroken, wet and slippery ice, especially when soaked with frigid water. The picks can be the difference in you telling a hair-raising story, or your friends telling it.
What if a companion falls through?
Don’t run up, you could break through and become another victim. Using your imagination, look for something you can use to reach or throw to pull them out of their predicament. Jumper cables, a tree limb, ski, rope, or knotted jackets all work.
What if you fall in?
Turn toward the direction you came from. Place your hands and arms on the unbroken surface and, using your ice picks, work forward onto the ice by kicking your feet. If it breaks, repeat the effort. Once on the ice, don’t stand; roll away from the hole. That spreads out your weight until you’re on solid ice.
In either case, get medical attention. A rescued person may seem fine but can suffer a potentially fatal condition called “afterdrop.” This occurs when cold blood that’s pooled in the extremities circulates into the body’s core.
It’s good to remember that no ice is totally safe. Variables such as fluctuating water levels, currents and springs, and even decaying vegetation can create soft spots. I was able to escape my close call but, during my work with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, I’ve had to deal with the families of those that weren’t so lucky.
Enjoy your time outdoors, but certainly use the caution that these resources deserve. I enjoy having you as a reader.
“It’s a strange world of language in which skating on thin ice can get you into hot water.” — Franklin P. Jones
Along the way
Do you think you’re an ice expert? Let’s see how you do with these questions:
• Which is safer, clear ice or cloudy ice?
This is a trick question — NO ICE IS SAFE ICE! Regardless of how the ice looks, always proceed with caution, since there are always thin spots on lakes and ponds. When ice forms, it is clearer, with less impurities and irregularities. So, inch for inch, clear ice is stronger, since it is purer.
• There is no one on the lake and I hear weird noises. Is that the sound of the ice cracking?
Probably not. The ice on a lake is in a difficult position: cold air above, warm water below, and only so much room to expand. So, when ice forms, it will actually “sing.” This is the result of the ice pressing against itself as it expands.
• True or false — Speaking of water temperatures, the warmest water will be near the top, since the sun can still warm the water.
False. Water is densest at 39 degrees Fahrenheit. Instead of warm water at the top and cool water at the bottom in summer, the warmest water in the winter will be at the bottom, while the coolest water will be at the top. This cool water will freeze first and become the first layer of ice.
• True or false — Why go ice fishing? The fish are “turned off,” so they won’t bite.
False. Fish need to eat to survive. They do eat less when the waters get cold since their activity level decreases, but they do need to eat enough to maintain their body condition. It’s best to reduce the size of your baits.
• True or false — During the winter, aquatic vegetation dies off, and the lake bottoms are flat with no features or cover for fish.
False. Aquatic vegetation can last throughout the winter as long as sunlight can penetrate the ice. If the ice is cloudy, or there is an excess amount of snow on the ice, this can cause the vegetation to die off. If the die-off is severe enough, a “winter kill” of fish can happen, since decomposing vegetation reduces oxygen in the water.
One of the great things about ice fishing is that tackle can be very simple and inexpensive. Short rods, light gear, light line, and small baits are the ticket. Some anglers also like to use small bobbers as strike indicators, since strikes can be subtle.
Tip-ups are a common addition to many ice anglers’ tackle, too. Most store-bought versions feature a signaling device, such as a flag, that pops up when a fish takes the bait. In Ohio, anglers can have up to six tip-ups going at one time, and each must be labeled with the owner’s name and address.
Step outside
• Tomorrow: Trap shoot, 1 p.m., Mount Blanchard Gun Club, 21655 Delaware Township 186.
• Today and tomorrow: Tri-State Gun Collectors show, Allen County Fairgrounds.
• Thursday and Friday: Trap and skeet, open to the public, 5 p.m., UCOA, 6943 Marion Township 243, Findlay.
• Jan. 12: “Growing Up WILD” workshop, 9 a.m. to noon, Johnny Appleseed Metro Park District, 2355 Ada Road, Lima. Workshop is free, but pre-registration is required. Contact Beth Theisen at 419-223-1025.
• Jan. 25-26: Fifty-eighth Ohio Fish and Wildlife Conference, Friday conference topics include: chronic wasting disease; landscape genetics; Virginia rails; habitat restoration; and wildlife technology, like camera surveys, environmental DNA and drones. It will be at Nationwide and Ohio Farm Bureau 4-H Center, 2201 Fred Taylor Drive, Columbus,
• Jan. 27: Free ice fishing workshop, 9 a.m. to noon, Sportsmen’s Migratory Bird Center, Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, 13229 Ohio 2 W, Oak Harbor, pre-registration required by Jan. 25. Contact: 419-898-0960, ext. 21.
Abrams is a retired wildlife officer supervisor for the state Division of Wildlife in Findlay. He can be reached at P.O. Box 413, Mount Blanchard 45867-0413 or via email at



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