Walkin’ on Thin Ice
Story and photo by Kelly Ulrick, Saylorville Lake

    It happens every winter … a group of kids stand at the edge of a small pond seemingly frozen over from days of cold weather. After smashing an aluminum bat into the thick layer of stiff water, the bravest soul decides to apprehensively walk onto the ice, holding his breath and carefully listening to the sound of his feet crunching over the fresh dusting of snow covering the icy pond.

    Unlike the sound of impending danger belted out at baseball games, no one yells, "heads up," to warn a person that they're about to break through the only thing separating them from life, and almost certain death ... a thin layer of icy crust.

    Do you know what safe ice looks like? Do you know how to get out of the water if you fell through?

    Extended-cold weather has caused the development of ice early this year, but that doesn't mean the ice is safe. There should be at least two inches of clear-blue ice before you step on any frozen water and much more if there will be several people on the ice.

    If the ice starts to crack, stop, drop and roll until you're on thicker ice. If you see a friend go through the ice, don't try and be a hero, get help!

    For steady footing, a pair of ice cleats on your boots work great. Ice awls also come in handy if you know how to use them. For instance, if you fall through the ice, you could use the picks to grab the ice as you kick under water and pull yourself out, but don't stand up until you're sure the ice is firm enough. Ice cleats and ice awls can usually be found at your nearest bait shop or sporting goods store.

    Stay away from areas where there's a current or water level change such as rivers, streams and reservoirs. Watch for the dark areas that reveal places where the ice is thin. It's also a good idea to avoid areas with logs, brush or docks sticking out from the ice. These areas absorb the warmth from the sun and weaken the ice around them.

    It may seem silly to wear a lifejacket over your coat, but it could save your life. The jacket not only keeps you afloat if you fall through the ice, but it will also keep you warm. Keep in mind that when a person does get out of the water, the cold can still be deadly and cause hypothermia. 

    The icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean claimed the lives of 1,522 passengers from the RMS Titanic during the early-morning hours of April 15, 1912 ... most died of hypothermia.

    Hypothermia is caused when your body's core temperature drops. This quickly causes confusion, disorientation and rigid muscles. Eventually, speech will become slurred, shivering will stop, but breathing will become shallow, pulse will weaken, and in the end … unconsciousness and finally death. It's also important to note that alcohol will greatly increase your chances of suffering from hypothermia.

    On a large reservoir, there's never any "safe ice." The lake waters are moving and levels are fluctuating enough to prevent solid ice from forming. Two snowmobile riders drowned trying to cross Saylorville Lake several years ago. Needless to say, vehicles are not allowed on the reservoir ice.

    Ice fishing enthusiasts should try nearby ponds or small lakes. Farm ponds can have great fishing, but be sure to ask the landowner first. 

    Remember there's no such thing as 100-percent safe ice!