Officers remind anglers, other outdoor enthusiasts to exercise caution on the ice

Ice fishing is popular at Haymarsh Lake, but anglers waited until late December to make sure the ice was safe. (Herald Review photo/John Raffel)
Ice fishing is popular at Haymarsh Lake, but anglers waited until late December to make sure the ice was safe. (Herald Review photo/John Raffel)

OSCEOLA/MECOSTA COUNTY — With temperatures dropping once again, those who enjoy the outdoors in winter may be eager to go out and test the ice. Before gearing up with fishing poles or skates, Big Rapids Department of Public Safety (DPS) and Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conservation officers offer a few tips to staying safe on the ice.

“A big tip is to tell people where you are going and when you expect to be back,” said DPS Deputy Director Steve Schroeder.

Schroeder said people should exercise caution when moving across a frozen body of water as the ice may be more thin in some areas than others. When moving across the ice, winter enthusiasts should disperse their weight as much as possible to test thickness and help prevent falling through.

When looking for a good spot to fish or skate, Schroeder said rivers may not be the best place to look.

“Any kind of river ice should not be thought of as safe,” he said.

For more safety advice, Schroeder and other DPS officers refer people to the DNR’s website.

According to Lt. Tom Wanless, DNR recreational safety programs supervisor, winter outdoorsmen cannot always determine the strength of ice simply by its look, its thickness, the temperature or whether the ice is covered with snow.

“New ice generally is stronger than old ice,” Wanless said in a press release. “While a couple of inches of new, clear ice may be strong enough to support a person, a foot of old ice riddled with air bubbles may not. Clear ice that has a bluish tint is the strongest. Ice formed by melted and refrozen snow appears milky, and often is porous and weak.”

Wanless said ice covered by snow should always be presumed unsafe as snow acts like an insulating blanket and slows the freezing process, making the ice thinner and weaker. Wanless also warned if there is slush on the ice, stay off.

“Slush ice is only about half as strong as clear ice and indicates the ice is no longer freezing from the bottom,” Wanless said. “Be especially cautious in areas where air temperatures have fluctuated. A warm spell may take several days to weaken the ice. But when temperatures vary widely, causing ice to thaw during the day and refreeze at night, the result is a weak, spongy or honeycombed ice that is unsafe.”

The DNR does not recommend the standard “inch-thickness” guide used by many outdoor enthusiasts to determine ice safety, Wanless said, noting the guide suggests a minimum of 4 inches of clear ice is needed to support an average person’s weight, but since ice seldom forms at a uniform rate it is important to check the thickness with a spud and ruler every few steps.

Deep inland lakes take longer to freeze than shallow lakes, Wanless said. Ice cover on lakes with strong currents or chain-of-lakes systems also is more unpredictable. Ice near shore tends to be much weaker because of shifting, expansion and heat from sunlight reflecting off the bottom.

“If there’s ice on the lake but water around the shoreline, proceed with caution,” he said. “Avoid areas with protruding logs, brush, plants and docks as they can absorb heat from the sun and weaken the surrounding ice.”

Wanless said that anyone walking onto a frozen lake or river should wear a life jacket, wear bright colors, carry a cellphone and bring a set of ice picks or ice claws. He advised against taking a car, truck or snowmobile on the ice.

If a person does break through the ice, Wanless offered the following tips:

• Try to remain calm;

• Don’t remove your winter clothing. Heavy clothes won’t drag you down, but can trap air to provide warmth and flotation. This is especially true with a snowmobile suit;

• Turn toward the direction you came from, as that ice is probably the strongest;

• If you have ice picks or ice claws, dig their points into the ice while vigorously kicking your feet, and pull yourself onto the surface by sliding forward on the ice;

• Once out of the water, roll away from the area of weak ice. Rolling on the ice will distribute your weight to help avoid breaking through again;

• Get to shelter, warm yourself, change into dry clothing and consume nonalcoholic, noncaffeinated drinks; and

• Call 911 and seek medical attention if you feel disoriented, have uncontrollable shivering or notice any other ill effects.

For more information about staying safe while on the water or in the woods, visit the DNR website