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What you should know before you venture onto the ice

Courtesy of Utah State Parks

What you should know before you venture onto the ice

By Faith Heaton Jolley | Posted - Dec. 17, 2014 at 12:15 p.m.


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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is famous for having the “Greatest Snow on Earth,” but the state also offers great ice fishing and snowmobiling. If you want to continue your outdoor activities during the winter, here are some tips to help you stay safe while on the ice.

Utah State Parks employees respond to around five ice rescues each year, according to Utah State Parks boating program manager Ty Hunter. However, that number doesn’t include undocumented incidents or the number of rescues that city or county officials are dispatched to, so the total number in the state could be much higher, Hunter said.

Typically, when people fall through the ice, it is because they are impatient and want to get out on the ice before they properly check it, Hunter said. Ice is the strongest when it is newly formed, but if there is a warm spell with snow or rain, that changes the dynamics of the ice and weakens it.

Here are things to look for in weak, unsafe ice:

  • Ice that has puddles of water on top of it
  • Ice that has multiple holes in it
  • Lots of cracks or spiral fractures throughout the ice
  • When there is movement or ridges in the ice
  • Ice that is unattached from the shoreline
Here are six things to know before you head out onto the ice for ice fishing or snowmobiling:

1. Think in terms of a thermometer instead of calendar

Rather than assuming that the ice will be thick because it is the middle of January, check the temperature to see how hot or cold it has been that week. Before you head out, check what the high and low temperatures will be for that day. If there is a large gradient between the highs and lows, the ice could be unsafe due to melting and water pooling.

2. Check with locals who are there

Ask locals and state park employees in the area where to go or how thick the ice is at the lakes or ponds in that region. Different lakes can be affected by springs that flow into them or how the sun shines on on them. There are many factors that affect how ice forms or how safe it stays.

3. Plan for the worst

If you are planning to go out onto the ice, be able to carry something to take care of yourself. Dress for the weather and wear layers. Heavy clothing won’t drag you down if you do fall into the water, Hunter said. Instead, they will keep you warm and help you float because air pockets get trapped in the layers.

4. Always have an ice awl and life jacket with you

Having an ice awl is your “insurance policy,” Hunter said. People should have the tool with them at all times on the ice. An ice awl can prove to be crucial if someone falls through the ice. Ice becomes very slick when it gets wet and the ice awl provides grip and traction to allow an individual to pull themselves out of the water. If someone wears a lightweight life jacket, it can help keep them afloat if they fall through the ice.

5. Do a drill test to see how thick the ice is

Hunter said people should always drill a hole in the ice to test how thick it is before they venture onto it very far. If the ice is two inches thick or less, people should stay off of it. Ice that is four inches thick will typically hold the weight of a person and ice that is five inches thick will hold a snowmobile or ATV. However, it is not recommended to drive a vehicle on the ice, Hunter said.

6. What to do if you fall into the ice

If you do happen to fall through the ice, Hunter advised to remain calm and keep your clothing on while you are in the water because it will protect you from the elements. Swim toward where you fell through the ice and locate a solid shelf of ice. Next, lie flat on the top of the water and kick with your feet to propel yourself onto the shelf, Hunter said. Use your arms and your ice pick to secure yourself on the top of the ice and pull yourself out.

Then continue laying down to distribute your weight evenly across the ice and roll toward the shore. Once you have reached the shore, get to a warm location and strip your wet clothing off. Always call an ambulance after you have fallen through the ice so medical professionals can examine you for broken bones or hypothermia.

If you are with someone who cannot get themselves out of the water, do not go out to where they are because the ice is likely weak in that area and you could fall through as well, Hunter said. Try to locate a branch or rope that you could throw to the individual while maintaining a safe distance. If you can’t pull the person out with a rope or branch, keep an eye on them so you can direct emergency responders to the victim when they arrive.

“The biggest thing is there is never a 100 percent safe area on the ice,” Hunter said. “You do what you are comfortable with. Don’t become complacent and always think when you are out there, ‘How can I take care of me?’ ”

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Faith Heaton Jolley

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