Below the surface

ESCANABA – Safety may not be the first thing ice fishermen are thinking about when they take to the ice this winter, but a little forethought could save lives.

According to Delta County Sheriff Gary Ballweg, the best way to protect yourself if you fall through the ice is to be prepared.

“You see kids with mittens tied to their sleeves so they don’t lose them … Someone could have screwdrivers or some sort of spikes to pull themselves out of the ice,” he said.

When a victim falls through ice, the ice surrounding the opening will crack easily, making it difficult to escape. Spikes allow victims to grip into ice farther from the opening which may be stronger.

Anyone who is attempting to climb out of a hole in the ice should kick their feet in the water – like they are swimming – while pulling themselves onto the surface of the ice.

When a victim pulls themselves out of the water they should roll away from the opening rather than trying to stand. Rolling spreads out the victim’s body weight and limits pressure points on the ice, which could cause them to break through again.

If a group of people out on the ice hear a crack the group should spread out and lie down before crawling to safety. Just like rolling away from an opening, lying down distributes weight over a larger area.

Escaping the ice and frigid water is only half of surviving a fall through the ice. Hypothermia, an extreme drop in body temperature, can cause brain damage or death if not treated.

“The biggest danger is hypothermia. If you fall through the ice and manage to climb out you need to seek medical assistance quickly,” said Ballweg.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 1999 and 2011, a total of 16,911 people died of hypothermia in the United States. Approximately 67 percent of those deaths were among men.

People suffering from hypothermia have difficulty moving or thinking clearly, and may not know that anything is wrong. The victim’s wet clothing needs to be replaced immediately with warm, dry blankets, towels, or clothes.

While warming the victim with dry items and skin to skin contact can prevent serious complications, professional medical attention is still necessary for anyone who has fallen through the ice or may have hypothermia.

“Regardless of the situation call 911 right away,” said Ballweg.

Knowing how to escape the ice and prevent hypothermia in case of an emergency is important, but there are things that fishermen should consider before venturing onto the ice.

Snowmobiles and other off-road vehicles are frequently responsible for ice related fatalities. The heavy, loud machines can break through ice with little warning for their operators.

“It is absolutely not safe to take a snowmobile or ORV out there,” said Ballweg.

Ballweg noted the area of water near the point which used to be the Gladstone power plant site is particularly deadly and has claimed multiple snowmobilers over the last 30 years.

The point is home to an underwater current, which wears down the ice at a different rate than ice in surrounding waters. “People who aren’t familiar with that area go through the ice and that’s the end of them,” said Ballweg.

River crossings present extra risks due to currents under the ice. Parents should be aware of the dangers of river and stream crossings and keep their children away from those areas.

Many deaths and near-drownings happen when dogs and other family pets wander onto dangerous ice and their owners try to retrieve them. Instead Ballweg recommends coaxing the animal back to safety.

If the ice breaks under a pet, owners should not attempt a rescue. “If it can’t hold the weight of your pet, it can’t hold you,” said Ballweg.

Ballweg also warns that being on the ice at night is extremely dangerous, and makes it difficult for rescue personnel to act in the an emergency due to the lack of light.

“I don’t recommend anyone go out on the ice at night,” he said.