DNR Urges That You Always Play It Safe on or Around Ice
February 3, 2005
Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Pete Malette never will forget the time he went through the ice on Lake Superior's Munising Bay--in approximately 190 feet of water.
"I was on foot, checking ice fishermen in the middle of the bay in January 1988," Malette said. "Anglers were targeting lake trout and whitefish, and I had been to numerous shanties in this area on a number of occasions and knew the ice to be approximately 12 inches thick.
"The temperature was in the low 20s, and the ice was covered by a fresh snow. I had just finished writing tickets to two individuals for possession of undersized lake trout and was walking back to my patrol car on shore, which was several hundred yards away.
"I had no warning the ice was unsafe, when suddenly I was underwater and sinking fast. I remember being very surprised and feeling stunned by the sudden cold--it nearly knocked the wind out of me.
"I also remember looking up at the ice, hoping to find the hole. I had broken through a pressure crack, where the ice tends to overlap. It all looked the same except for one small disturbed area above me.
"I was very lucky that day. Because of the nature of our work, conservation officers frequently break through the ice. Most of the time, however, it's usually on a stream or small beaver pond.
"Still, as a result of my experiences, I now am vary wary of any ice and always try to be well-prepared before going out on it. I normally wear a float coat and rarely am I found without my ice picks."
Sgt. Pete Malette knows what he's talking about--no ice cover should ever be considered safe.
"Just because a lake or stream is frozen doesn't mean the ice is safe," said Lt. Creig Grey, marine safety and education supervisor for the DNR Law Enforcement Division. "Ice fishing has its own set of safety rules that if not followed, can cause a day of fishing to end in tragedy."
According to Grey, you can't always tell the strength of ice simply by its look, its thickness, the temperature or whether or not it is covered with snow. New ice, he said, generally is much stronger than old ice; at least four inches of new clear ice should be strong enough to support you, though a foot of old, air-bubbled ice will not.
"Clear ice that has a bluish tint is the strongest," Grey said. "Ice formed by melted and refrozen snow appears milky, is very porous and very weak."
Ice covered by snow always should be presumed unsafe. Snow acts like an insulating blanket and slows the freezing process. Ice under the snow will be thinner and weaker. A snowfall also can melt existing ice.
If there is slush on the ice, stay off. Slush ice is only about half as strong as clear ice and indicates the ice is no longer freezing from the bottom.
Grey said anglers should be especially cautious in areas where air temperatures have fluctuated in recent days. When temperatures vary widely, causing the ice to thaw during the day and refreeze at night, the result is a weak, "spongy" or honeycombed ice that is unsafe, he said.
Anglers also should bear in mind that ice weakens with age, and late in the season, when it turns dark and gets honeycombed, it's time to quit for the season.
The DNR does not recommend the standard "inch-thickness" guide used by many anglers and snowmobilers to determine ice safety because ice seldom forms at a uniform rate. Three or four inches of ice on a shallow farm pond with no inlets or outlets, for example, cannot be compared to the same amount of ice formed over a river with strong current, or to ice covering the bays of the Great Lakes, where ice cover always will be more fragile.
"Always presume that no ice is safe," Grey said. "Do not venture out onto the ice unless you test the thickness and quality with a spud or needle bar or an auger. Ice that is six or seven inches thick in one spot can be only two inches thick close by."
On the big lakes, ice cover in some spots may be thick enough to safely hold a car while other areas of ice are little more than an inch thick. Conditions can change within just a few feet because of currents under the ice. Be especially careful around pressure cracks. When the currents are stronger, the ice gives way to open water.
When fishing the big lakes, always take a compass and take note of which way you are going as you leave shore. A cell phone or citizens band radio can keep you in touch with other anglers. Always keep an eye on the winds that may cause the ice to shift and pay attention to weather reports. Never venture out on big water if blowing snow is in the forecast.
Ice near shore tends to be much weaker because of shifting, expansion and heat from sunlight reflecting off the bottom. If there's ice on the lake but water around the shoreline--proceed with caution.
"I personally would never recommend that you take a car or truck onto the ice," Grey said. "But those are personal decisions. I would urge that anyone wear a life jacket when walking onto a frozen lake or river."
Grey also suggests that anglers always fish with a buddy whenever possible and always tell someone where they are going and when they expect to return.
"Part of enjoying Michigan winters is recognizing potential dangers and taking responsible precautions," Grey said. "We urge everyone to make safety a top priority."