Thick ice still covers much of Tustumena Lake, but where the lake meets the Kasilof River open water has started to flow. "It's getting late in the year, and with the warm weather weve been having, it's time to start watching it," said Shawn Killian, head of the Swiftwater Rescue Team at Central Emergency Services in Soldotna.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
Whether partaking in skiing, snowmachining, dog mushing, ice fishing or checking a trap line, ice safety should be on the mind of all outdoor enthusiasts who cross frozen lakes and rivers this late in the winter recreation season.
“It’s getting late in the year, and with the warm weather we’ve been having, it’s time to start watching it,” said Shawn Killian, head of the Swiftwater Rescue Team at Central Emergency Services in Soldotna.
Although the ice still is thick in many places, Killian said it is difficult to know how long it will stay safe enough for travel.
“It can be tough to know what the ice is doing,” he said.
Temperatures in the upper 30s to lower 40s, as have been the common highs during the past week, will have an affect on ice, he said.
Warm water springs and water currents also can “rot” ice at an uneven rate. River ice thickness often is determined by the strength of the current beneath it, but river ice in general is 15-20 percent weaker than lake ice and may open earlier.
Evidence of this can be seen where the Kasilof River meets Tustumena Lake, and the Kenai River meets Kenai Lake and Skilak Lake.
Continuously travelling over the same path can weaken thin ice, Killian said, particularly if pounded by 600- to 700-pound snowmachines.
“We occasionally see them go in as a result of using the same path, over and over, to get onto a lake or river,” he said.
Killian said gauging the strength of ice by its appearance can be deceptive, since it may seem thick at the top, but can be rotting away at the center and base.
In general, though, clear ice is the strongest, while it is best to avoid dark-colored or mottled ice showing signs of browns from plant tannins, dirt and other natural materials that are resurfacing from thawing. Ice that is thawing, slushy or honey-combed with melted pockets throughout it is not suitable for even a footstep, Killian said.
Outdoor enthusiasts should be prepared for an emergency by knowing what to do if someone breaks though ice, and by having some emergency gear.
“The first thing to remember is don’t panic,” he said.
If you are the person who falls though the ice, Killian recommends turning toward the direction you came from, placing your hands and arms on the unbroken surface of the ice, kicking with your feet and attempting to “bob” up and down until enough momentum can be gained to bob out onto the ice like a seal.
“Once you bob out, you don’t want to stand up because you could go right back through. Instead you want to roll away from the hole, dispensing your body weight over the ice,” he said.
Killian said if you bob out and the ice breaks, just stay calm and keep attempting to work forward. It may take a couple of attempts.
“It’s always best to go out through the same hole you went in. If you go into moving water, fight like mad to get back to that hole,” he said.
If a companion falls through the ice, the situation is similar in that staying calm is the best way to think of a solution, according to Killian.
“Don’t run up to the hole, because if you get too close to the edge you could go in and then there’s two victims that need saving,” he said.
Instead, Killian recommends using an item from shore such as rope from an emergency kit to throw or extend to the victim to pull them out of the water. If a rope isn’t available, look for anything a victim may be able to grab onto, such as jumper cables, a jacket or even a tree branch.
“If using something short, be sure to be on your belly, completely flattened out to dispense your weight, and slide out to them using your feet to push your way out to them,” he said.
If the victim cannot be immediately rescued, call 911.
Once out of the water, Killian said the next thing to do is get dry as fast as you can before hypothermia sets in. Get to a car and get the heat going, or if you’re on a snowmachine or out in the backcountry, turn to supplies in the emergency kit.
“Use your emergency kit supplies to get a fire going, then get out of the wet clothes and wrap up in an emergency blanket until you can dry your clothes,” he said.
Since most people follow the adage that “cotton kills,” Killian said most people in the outdoors will be wearing fleece or synthetic materials which should dry quickly.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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