By GLENN GARNETT
A few years ago I joined some friends for an evening of snowmobiling on some trails near the shores of Lake Simcoe.
Before long, though, we were ON Lake Simcoe, something I wasn't too comfortable about but, hey, as they pointed out, temperatures had been well below freezing for weeks and the ice had to be over a foot thick. That, plus the sight of ice huts and trucks parked on the ice, made me feel a little better and, not wanting to look like a total wiener, I joined them for some high-speed drag racing.
On our way back to shore, and with the darkness, I didn't notice a rise in front of my machine - zipping along at high speed, I was soon airborne, and when I came down - splash! The others saw my predicament, and had a good laugh at my expense: I'd landed in a deep puddle caused by a crack in the ice. Nothing life threatening. Nonetheless I got the hell out of there pronto and have stuck to dry-land trails ever since.
Thatís because I'd learned the first law of winter ice safety - thereís no such thing as safe ice.
According to the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs, drowning is the number one cause of death in snowmobile fatalities. Further, the Ontario Provincial Police says last year alcohol was involved about two-thirds of all snowmobile-related deaths. We're all familiar with reports, usually in our Monday morning newspapers, of some unlucky cottager whose snowmobile crashed through thin ice.
Sgt. Lynn Beach , co-ordinator of the OPP STOP (Snowmobile Trail Officer Patrol) Program, last winter told The London Free Press that riders who end up dead are generally men, 19-35 years old, riding at night on the weekends.
But itís tough to avoid the ice during our long winters, and thousands of Canadians enjoy ice-fishing, ice-sailing, skating, hockey and snowmobiling. In many localities in Northern Ontario, which is awash with lakes and rivers, "iceroads" are a commonplace means of taking a shortcut in the winter months. My college buddy Debbie Maclean who lives near Dryden, Ont. chips in with neighbours to pay an expert to set-up an iceroad every winter across their lake which shaves about ten minutes off their drive to town.
Okay - so we're Canadian, we love ice. If we have to go near it, how do we stay alive?
For starters, ask someone who knows - the local bait and tackle shop operator, the police, local clubs. If you don't know, you don't go.
If you do go, stick to the packed or marked trail - this isn't the time or place to bravely blaze a path of your own on that pristine snowy surface. Remember also that a deep layer of snow actually insulates the ice and prevents it from freezing as evenly or quickly as it would without snow cover. The Canadian Red Cross says the colour of ice is a pretty good indication of its strength. Clear blue ice is strongest. White opaque or snow ice is half as strong and is formed by wet snow freezing on the ice. Grey ice is bad news - water is closer than you think.
If you're scooting across the ice on your snowmobile, don't stop until you reach shore - a machine in motion can skim across a surprise stretch of slush or open water and get you back to safety.
Travelling at night, the Ontario Snowmobile Safety Committee advises not to "overdrive" your snowmobile's headlight. According to their website: "At even 30 miles per hour, it can take a much longer distance to stop on ice than your headlight shines. Many fatal snowmobile through-the-ice accidents occur because the machine was travelling too fast for the operator to stop when the headlamp illuminated the hole in the ice."
Several advisory agencies strongly recommend the "Ice Rider" buoyant snowmobile suit by Mustang - it'll keep you afloat and protect against hypothermia. Itís also smart to pack some ice picks to help pull yourself back onto the ice if you fall through - a regular snowmobile suit soaked through can add 60 lbs. to your weight in a desperate situation.
Itís a good idea to share your on-ice experience with friends - thereís always safety in numbers. Itís also important to keep your eye on the kids when they're on the ice - they're a little more fearless than they should be. If you're going out on the ice, make sure someone on shore is apprised of your plans - itís possible you could find yourself on a loose iceflow leaving you waiting for rescue.
What to do if you do fall in? First - don't panic. In every emergency situation, panic turns a solvable situation into a disaster.
Hopefully you're with a close personal friend - but he or she shouldn't rush over to the edge. They should get something to extend their reach like jumper cables or a ski and lay flat on the ice while attempting to rescue you.
If you're the unlucky one on the drink, kick vigorously and head for the nearest edge, then try to propel yourself out of the water like a seal. Once topside, don't stand up - your weight could break the thin ice. Roll away and, if possible, return to shore on the path you took.
Get help right away: the Red Cross warns of a potentially fatal condition called "after drop" which can happen when cold blood that is pooled in the body's extremities starts to circulate again as the victim starts to reward.
Finally, if you're planning to spend any time on or near ice this winter, carry a cellphone.
While the chart accompanying this article is a pretty good rule of thumb regarding the safety of ice, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources doesn't advocate the use of relative ice thickness guides, citing the fact that ice seldom freezes at a uniform rate. "While three inches of ice on a farm pond may pose little danger, that same three inches on a moving stream or lake with springs, stumps and currents could be very dangerous. On the Great Lakes, one step from three-foot ice may lead to nothing more than skim ice on the next step."
So take care, be prepared and make informed decisions before venturing out on the ice for fun this winter.