Extra care, caution always best practices when out on ice

Here in the Upper Peninsula, our Great Lakes shorelines and inland waterways are a point of pride for many outdoorsmen and women.

It seems nearly every year that once the waters freeze over to a respectable thickness, ice shanties begin popping up quickly, creating what looks like tiny little tent communities spread across the frozen tundra.

Snowmobilers, too, with their brightly painted machines and reflective cold-weather gear, can be seen zipping across the wide open ice-covered waters in an exhilarating thrill ride, or puttering to and from hauling a sled of equipment and supplies.

It’s also not uncommon to see full-fledged, four-wheeled vehicles — cars, trucks and SUVs — out there on the ice, and every now and then vehicles with skis and masts used in the growing sport of ice sailing.

And of course, there are also plenty of people who simply walk, snowshoe or ski over the ice.

But with this weekend’s temperatures forecasted to be above the norm for a typical January, at least at the time of this writing, we find it difficult not to turn our attention toward safety and the ice conditions on our regional waterways.

The Marquette City Fire Department recently gave away some ice safety kits that contained ice picks and whistles, which were leftover from last year’s efforts to raise awareness of ice safety.

The tools are valuable ones to have when setting foot on ice-covered bodies of water, and we commend the department and others in the community for making those kits available to the public and for helping to spread ice safety information.

In a press release issued about this time last year, Michigan Department of Natural Resources Lt. Tom Wanless said there are several factors that can determine the strength of ice.

For example, clear ice that has a bluish tint is the strongest. Ice formed by melted and refrozen snow appears milky and often is porous and weak, and ice that’s covered by snow should always be considered unsafe, as the snow acts like an insulating blanket and slows the freezing process.

The DNR also doesn’t recommend the standard “inch-thickness” guide to determine ice safety. A minimum of 4 inches of clear ice is needed to support an average person’s weight, but since ice seldom forms at a uniform rate it is important to check the thickness with a spud and ruler every few steps.

The Ninth Coast Guard District in 2012 made an official blog post that listed facts about ice. Those include:

≤ Direct freezing of lake water is stronger than ice formed by melting snow or refrozen ice.

≤ Obstructions like rocks, logs, vegetation and pilings affect ice strength, and can slow ice formation.

≤ Underwater streams or springs will cause weak spots at the surface.

≤ Ice located near the shore may be unsafe due to pressures outward and upward, which cause cracks to appear. Ice closer to shore is weaker because of shifting, expansion and sunlight reflecting off the bottom.

If you do break through the ice, Wanless with the DNR said try to stay calm and don’t remove your winter clothing. Rather than dragging you down, heavy clothes may actually trap air to provide warmth and flotation.

You should then head in the direction you came from and, if you have them, use ice picks or ice claws to climb and slide yourself out of the water. From there, roll yourself away from the broken ice to keep your weight more evenly distributed, then get to shelter, warm yourself, change into dry clothing and consume nonalcoholic, noncaffeinated drinks. Call 911 and seek medical attention if you have any symptoms of hypothermia, like feeling disoriented or uncontrollable shivering.

Nearly every year we try to make sure our readers are informed on safety tips like these, but putting them into action is out of our hands. That responsibility falls to every individual who steps out onto the ice. Get outside and enjoy all that our region has to offer, but please do so safely.