Make sure ice is safe before venturing out

Published 6:00am Sunday, November 24, 2013

Column: Woods and Water, By Dick Herfindahl

This is the time of the year that has most fishermen in limbo. As ice begins to form on our area lakes and streams, the open-water fishing opportunities start to dwindle, and all we can do is wait for ice-over. This can also be a dangerous part of the year as folks tend to venture out on thin ice hoping to reap the benefits of the early ice bite. It’s been said many times that the hard-water fishing is at its best soon after the ice-over.

The Department of Natural Resources said the thin layers of ice that are forming on Minnesota waters right now are not safe. This reminder comes after a DNR conservation officer helped rescue a man Nov. 15 who was fishing and fell through the ice on Little Rock Lake in Benton County.

“The bottom line is it’s crucial that people do not let their guard down, because ice is never 100 percent safe,” said Kara Owens, DNR boat and water safety specialist. “A few days of cold temperatures don’t create ice strong enough to hold a person.”

According to Owens, six people died last winter after falling through the ice.

The DNR recommends anyone heading out on the ice should carry a set of ice picks, check with a local bait shop or resort to ask about ice conditions and measure the ice.

DNR clear ice thickness recommendations are 4 inches for walking, 5 inches for a snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle, 8 to 12 inches for a car and 12 to 15 inches for a medium-sized truck.

Statistics say most drowning is caused by thin ice are at this time of the year, and children are the ones who are most prone to testing the first ice.

Looking back to my childhood days, I recall testing the first ice on more than one occasion. As a kid, I spent most of my waking moments either at the crick starting with ice-out in the spring or tromping through the slough on a wintery Saturday in search of some kind of adventure. I remember testing the ice on mud puddles just to get some sort of satisfaction out of breaking through. It is actually kind of strange what simple things could fascinate a young mind back then.

As the ice thickened, some of the kids in the neighborhood would decide to venture out into the slough pretending to be explorers like Lewis and Clark or frontiersmen like our folk heroes Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. Sometimes I’d picture myself as Sgt. William Preston of the Yukon, who was a TV hero of mine who was always battling Native Americans or tracking down those dastardly French-Canadian bad guys.

Getting back to the ice thing, while venturing out on the big ice for the first time, we would usually be extra careful until we felt safe. That would sometimes lead to filling the old five-buckle overshoe with ice cold water. The overshoe full of water was usually accompanied by a water-soaked pant leg, which would freeze solid in just a short time in the cold of winter. It’s funny how kids can be oblivious to the freezing temperatures for a time until the pant leg starts to make a clacking sound and the teeth begin chattering. This is when you knew it was time to head home and face the “I told you so” that mom would have ready for you after warning you to be careful and stay off the ice.

Most of the time if you fell through the ice, it was because you were too close to the cattails, which were like magnets to a kid looking for the perfect one. For some strange reason, we would almost make a game out of finding the best cattail. You didn’t want one that had already started to open up, but you searched for one that was perfectly brown with the point still intact. It wasn’t as if we would actually do anything with them, but I guess it was just a game we made up to pass the time on a wintery afternoon adventure.

Yes, those times spent playing on that thin ice could have been dangerous, but we didn’t see it that way, because we didn’t think the crick was all that deep. Of course, we never really planned on breaking through. I can still remember marveling at the times when you would stand on that clear, thin ice, watching as the water flowed beneath it on its way to Goose Lake. It was just another wonder of nature that fascinated a young kid who loved spending time in the outdoors.

Until next time, stay off the thin ice. There will be plenty of winter ahead. It’s always time well spent when you spend it in our great Minnesota outdoors.

Please remember to keep our troops in your thoughts and prayers because they are the reason we are able to enjoy all the freedoms that we have today.

Dick Herfindahl’s column appears in the Tribune each Sunday.