Be careful on the ice: Rescue a cautionary tale for venturing on to frozen lakes

Posted: Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sam Evanoff believed everything was under control. It was two o'clock in the afternoon on Nov. 9 when he received the call from Central Emergency Services ordering him to respond to a situation on Sport Lake, where a German shepherd was reportedly stuck out on the ice.

A resident of the area had observed the stranded dog and thought it prudent to alert the authorities; the German shepherd's owner, however, decided he would take matters into his own hands.

By the time Evanoff's Ford truck reached the edge of Sport Lake, all he could see was a woman standing across the water, frantically waving her arms and screaming words he was unable to make out. He quickly jumped back in the truck and made his way along Ross Drive, where the new angle afforded him a view of real situation at hand: an old man and his dog were huddled in a tiny blue and white paddleboat (sans paddles) about 40 feet from the lake's edge, equipped only with an extension cord and a snow shovel.

Kokianna -- as the German shepherd was called -- had fallen through the ice, the panicked woman told Evanoff. The dog's owner had attempted to rescue her by pushing the paddleboat out over the ostensibly frozen lake, and now both were struck, wedged in the water between several precarious sheets of ice.

Evanoff scrambled up the path back to where his truck was parked and grabbed a tow strap to assist the paddleboat's marooned passengers. But just as he was returning to what he believed would be a cut-and-dry rescue operation, the 72-year-old man lost his balance and plunged into the frigid water.

"Then his wife starts screaming, 'He he can't swim,'" recalled Evanoff, an employee of CES for 15 years and a volunteer for the previous five. "So at that point in time I took my jacket off and got ready to go in after him."

The drowning man clawed frenetically at the surrounding ice in an instinctive attempt to grasp something solid, but it continued to shatter and disintegrate under his desperate fingers. Evanoff urged the terrified man to swim toward him, and flung out the nylon rope.

A miss. The strap didn't make it far enough, and sank into the freezing water. Evanoff hastily reeled it back in and tried again.

"This time when I threw the tow strap out to him, it landed right in front of his face," he said. "It was sitting on the ice a little bit, and he grabbed it."

After being pulled back to shore, the shaken but physically fine dog owner was rushed back to his home by a neighbor for a hot shower. An emergency team arrived soon thereafter (Evanoff had called 911, as the man's wife was too hysterical to do so during the commotion), and two divers in dry suits successfully launched a rescue boat to save the confused canine.

This kind of situation isn't terribly common, but it's not as infrequent as one would probably like. Jack Anderson, a dayshift captain who has worked for Central Emergency Services for over a decade, reports that CES performs about two ice rescues annually. These usually occur in the fall when ice is beginning to form, or in the springtime, when it starts to dissolve.

"Every lake is different because of depths and springs, moving water, winds, and other variations," Anderson pointed out, so it is best to be extremely aware of the conditions when snowmachining, driving, or fishing on ice.

"We're well past any real ice problems now because of the cold weather that we've had," he added. "Most lake ice now is ready to accept motor vehicles being driven on it."

But again, he warns against assuming that ice is stable and acknowledges that the only reliable way to calculate thickness is to auger a hole in the ice. Anderson also advises to stay away from areas of moving water (such as where Skilak Lake empties into the Kenai River) and to keep an eye on the visible characteristics of the ice: clear with no fracture lines is a good sign, but stay away from ice that is milky or opaque in appearance.

Anderson and Evanoff realize that most of the accidents that require ice rescue operations are just that: accidents. They aren't the result of careless or idiotic actions on the part of the victims, but a natural order of business in a place like Alaska that fosters many ice-centric winter activities. The man who fell through Sport Lake is just one such accident.

"The people that do this -- that are out on the lakes -- they know the thickness of the ice," Evanoff said. "They exercise pretty good judgment. But this guy was just trying to save his dog, and it was early in the season in November and the ice had just formed on the lake."

Evanoff suggested that the department consider putting together an ice rescue unit specifically devoted to animals, as CES already possesses the equipment to implement such a thing. He said he would prefer offering that kind of service instead of having untrained citizens put themselves in harm's way for their pets' sake.

"I'd rather do that than end up pulling a body out of the lake."

Karen Garcia can be contacted at

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