Pack common sense when heading onto the ice

By: Kristyne E. Demske, Cari DeLamielleure-Scott | C&G Newspapers | Published January 21, 2016

 Crews from the St. Clair Shores and Harrison Township fire departments trained together in 2014 on Lake St. Clair in St. Clair Shores to practice ice rescues.

Crews from the St. Clair Shores and Harrison Township fire departments trained together in 2014 on Lake St. Clair in St. Clair Shores to practice ice rescues.

File photo by Deb Jacques


METRO DETROIT — With temperatures in the teens and 20s, it seems winter is finally upon us, and with it, the desire to hit the ice.

But with much of December and even the beginning of January experiencing temperatures in the high 30s to even 40 degrees, local experts say it’s best to pack caution along with those ice fishing poles.

“It’s just starting to form, but it’s really weak. There’s still some areas with open water,” said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Brian Landreville, stationed along Lake St. Clair in St. Clair Shores. 

He said officers have reported seeing more than 20 people at a time ice fishing on Lake St. Clair in mid-January, all very close to shore. The Coast Guard does “ice runs” every day to check how the ice is forming along the Coast Guard’s territory, the American side of the lake from the mouth of the Detroit River up to Algonac.

Landreville said those heading out on the ice should make sure they’re dressed appropriately for the weather, and should always let someone know where and when they are heading out on the ice and when they plan to return.

“It’d be better if you had somebody with you, (but) just as long as someone knows where you are, so in the event (of an emergency) they can call us,” he said. 

On the ice, he said, take a pole or a stick to poke the ice in front of you as you walk to check for ice deterioration. West Bloomfield Fire Lt. Matt Majestic said people should watch for two different types of cracks — dry and wet cracks. Dry cracks are OK and are seen frequently, but if a person sees a wet crack with water in it, they should remain at least 30 feet away from the crack, Majestic said. When on the ice, people have commonly reported hearing a “booming sound,” but if the ice stays dry, it is most likely pressure cracks, which are usually safe, he said.

The Coast Guard conducts ice rescue training every day, but Landreville said they have only had about two ice rescue incidents to respond to in the area since 2014.

“It’s never the same thing to go out here because it’s always changing,” he said. “Especially with weather like this in the 40s, it’s definitely a bit weaker now because of it.”

If a person falls through the ice, the first thing bystanders should do is call 911. In Oakland County, any person who has fallen through the ice and has been in the water for 10 minutes or more is required to be taken to the hospital.

“Once a person has been in cold water immersed for 10 minutes or more, from a safety standpoint, what happens is the body starts shunting blood due to the cold water … and they tend to not always be in their right mind,” Majestic said, adding that people become incoherent, loopy and “drunk-like.” 

In water that is 32.5-40 degrees Fahrenheit, a person has about 15-45 minutes of survival time. At 32.5 degrees, a person can be brought to exhaustion or lose consciousness in less than 15 minutes, Majestic said. Add alcohol and that speeds up the process. 

“It’ll get stronger, but right now it’s so infrequent that it gets formed for a week and then it’ll be gone,” Landreville said of the ice.

In Oakland County, smaller lakes may be frozen over, but larger lakes — including Cass Lake and Orchard Lake — still have open water areas, according to Majestic.

Lake ice tends to be stronger than ice formed on streams or rivers, and new ice is the strongest, Majestic said. Ice that is clear in color is some of the strongest ice, he added. 

Majestic said it’s good to follow these rules when determining if the ice is safe:

• 2 inches of ice can hold one average adult walking. 

• 4 inches can hold people fishing or a group of people walking together. 

• 5 inches can generally hold a snowmobile. 

• 12 inches or more can hold a light pickup truck. 

“Strength generalizations are based completely on columnar ice, which is formed usually during a steady freeze, no temperature fluctuation or added precipitation,” Majestic said. “It all comes down to how the temps have been and how deep the water is around it, as well as choke points on some lakes — areas where the lakes get narrow between two points.” 

If the lake has a swamp or marsh area, like a wetland, because of the amount of vegetation decomposing and producing natural gases, water takes longer to freeze. Ice also takes longer to form in shallow areas because the water is warmer, Majestic added. 

Those driving snowmobiles or all-terrain vehicles should wait until there is at least a solid week of steady cold temperatures to take them onto the ice. Vehicles should maintain a 30-foot radius around another vehicle.

Drivers should also be careful venturing onto the ice early in the season because the vehicles can create a wave under the ice and cause the ice to break ahead of the driver, Majestic said. When the temperature increases above 30 degrees, people should stay off the ice for at least the day until cooler, steady temperatures resume, because warmer temperatures can create weak spots in the ice.