DNR warns about ice danger after skater fatality

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008 at 7:01 am

Colder temperatures invite winter activities on Minnesota’s frozen lakes, but Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials are concerned that many lakes or ponds aren’t ready for recreation.

On Dec. 7, an ice skater died after breaking through thin ice on Medicine Lake in Hennepin County.

“Lakes in many parts of the state had open water until a couple of days ago,” said Tim Smalley, DNR water safety specialist. “Then we got a few inches of snow, which slows down the freezing process and creates a hidden trap for people who venture out.”

The DNR offers a few ice safety tips that winter sports enthusiasts should keep in mind before venturing out on any frozen lake or pond.


* 4 inches of new clear ice is the minimum thickness for travel on foot
* 5 inches is minimum for snowmobiles and ATVs
* 8- 12 inches for cars or small trucks.

The guidelines are for new, clear, solid ice. Many factors other than thickness can cause ice to be unsafe, and it is seldom a consistent thickness over an entire body of water. Check ice thickness frequently, especially early in the season, and be aware that even if the ice seems to be thick enough, there are other factors such as currents, wind, water chemistry and wildlife that can affect the safety of that of ice.


* check for known thin ice areas with a local resort or bait shop and test the thickness yourself using an ice chisel, ice auger or even a cordless 3/8 inch drill with a long auger-style bit
* refrain from driving on ice whenever possible and if you must, be prepared to leave it in a hurry – keep windows down, unbuckle your seat belt and have a simple emergency plan of action you have discussed with your passengers
* even “just a couple of beers” is enough to cause a careless error in judgment that could cost you your life
* don’t “overdrive” your snowmobile’s headlight – many fatal snowmobile accidents occur because the machine was traveling too fast for the operator to stop when the headlamp illuminated a hole in the ice
* wear a life vest under your winter gear or one of the new flotation snowmobile suits, but never when traveling across the ice in an enclosed vehicle.

Also, consider carrying a pair of ice picks in case of an accident.


* keep calm and think out a solution
* don’t run up to the hole; you’ll probably break through and then there will be two victims
* use some item on shore to throw or extend to the victim to pull them out of the water such as jumper cables or skis, or push a boat ahead of you
* if you can’t rescue the victim immediately, use a cell phone to call 911 get medical assistance for the victim
* handle victims gently – they may seem fine but could suffer a potentially fatal condition called “after drop,” which happens when cold blood pooled in the extremities starts to recirculate.

Try not to panic. Instead, remain calm and turn toward the direction from which you came.. Place your hands and arms on the unbroken surface of the ice – here’s where the ice picks come in handy. Work forward on the ice by kicking your feet. If the ice breaks, maintain your position and slide forward again. Once you are lying on the ice, don’t stand. Instead, roll away from the hole. That spreads out your weight until you are on solid ice. This is an extremely difficult procedure, particularly when weighed down by a saturated snowmobile suit.

The best advice is don’t put yourself into needless danger by venturing out too soon or too late in the season. No angler, no matter how much of a fishing enthusiast, would want to die for a crappie.

For more information on ice safety, contact the DNR at 651-296-6157 or toll free 888-646-6367 or e-mail and ask for our free ice safety publications. These include the brochures “Danger, Thin Ice”; “Hypothermia the Cold Facts”; and the wallet-sized reference cards and 11×14 posters entitled, “Minimum Recommended Ice Thicknesses.”

Or go online to download the ice safety tips pamphlet and to see a nine-minute DNR video on ice safety.

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