Taking a crack at walking on lake ice

Posted: Friday, March 23, 2007

JUNEAU -- You never want to hear cracking noises when you’re standing on a frozen lake.

Let’s be more specific. You never want your wife to hear cracking noises when she is next to you on a frozen lake.

You never want to be on Mendenhall Lake, a mile from help, trying to persuade her that the splintering and the lurching are commonplace. You lose what little authority you have when there is a chance of plunging into frigid glacier water.

In search of bona fide expertise, I turned to the staff at Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. What I learned was liberating but kind of disturbing.

While park policy discourages walking on ice, the staffers trust visitors’ common sense. We are free to throw ourselves onto the thinnest, most wafer-like bits of floating frost. There’s little supervision out by the glacier’s face, and even less hope of prompt rescue.

Though officials have bright red ladders designed for ice rescues, they are a long, ladder-toting mile away from anyone in trouble. People in the parking lot can barely see those of us foolish enough to bumble our way across the plate of snow and ice atop the lake this winter.

Thankfully, most people are smart enough to avoid problems. Or at least they’re embarrassed enough to avoid reporting them. Only three people have fallen through the surface recently, two up to their waists and one up to his armpits.

All survived. One guy was wearing a life preserver, so I’m not sure he counts.

Mendenhall naturalist Laurie Craig recommends that potential hikers stick to dry land and follow the edge of the water out to Nugget Falls, but no farther. She urges parents to enroll kids in yearly ice-safety training. When in doubt, spread your legs and tread softly.

“The lake can crack and make interesting noises,” Craig said. “I’ve been skiing when a crack shot from lake to shoreline. It turned my knees to putty.”

A little background research reveals that almost every outdoors fanatic in Juneau has a story about surviving thin ice. The reaction is universal. The knees wobble, the blood pressure skyrockets, the jaw drops, the spouse glares, the mad race begins.

We can’t forget the riskiest of the dangers: Calving. Surreal slabs of aqua ice slough off the glacier face and crash through the ice into the water. It can send a wave rippling through the not-so-solid lake surface, according to Mendenhall Assistant Director Wayne Ward.

“It sounds like the end of the world,” Ward said.

It can send a person underwater. In the 1970s, a young couple slipped into the freezing mess created when a calving glacier cracked the lake. The man was seriously injured, and rescuers took him to a hospital. The woman was never found.

As sobering as that is, most of us escape our brush with outdoor idiocy with our lives, if not our warmth. Most of us learn from the unnerving experience. For some, I hear, it’s a colder lesson than for others.

“You can imagine how miserable it is to fall through the ice and walk back a mile in wet clothing,” Ward said.

So here’s the sum of my insight. You’re on your own. Be careful. And when your wife hears the cracking noise, you know you’re on thin ice.

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