Falling Through the Ice

Paul Doiron here—

The other day, while I was driving, I noticed a person standing on a half-frozen pond. I have no idea what he was doing out there, but the first ice of the winter seems to do strange things to people. Maybe it’s the seasonal novelty of actually being able to walk on water that causes otherwise sane individuals (I am assuming this person was sane) to do foolish things.

My latest book, Bad Little Falls, has a great deal of ice in it. And since my protagonist, Mike Bowditch, is a game warden, he spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about the subject:

The rule of thumb with ice thickness is: It takes a foot of ice to support a medium truck, eight to twelve inches to support a car, five inches to support a snowmobile, and four inches to bear the weight of a person. But those guidelines don’t take into account moving water, not just actual rivers like the West, but the inlets and outlets of larger bodies. Most people assume lakes and ponds are still waters; they don’t realize that strong currents can move beneath their placid surfaces. And wherever the water is flowing, the ice tends to be thin, even when the temperatures collapse in the middle of February. Uncounted vehicles and people fell through the ice because they had no appreciation for Mother Nature’s treacherous side.

Already this year, rescue personnel have had to recover the body of a young trapper who fell through ice on Chapman Pond in Oxford and drowned. Those sorts of tragedies are regular occurrences in the lives of Maine wardens.

Last week, Quirk Books—which publishes the immensely readable Worst-Case Survival Handbook series—ran a timely reminder on its Web site about what to do if you happen to fall through the ice:

1. Breathe steadily. The shock of hitting the cold water will be great, but remain calm.

2. Turn in the direction from which you came. You most likely came from the area with the strongest ice.

3. Use your elbows to lift yourself up onto the edge of the whole. Do not get out yet. Hold yourself in that position. Let as much water as possible drain from your clothing.

4. Reach out onto solid ice as far as possible. If you have car keys, a comb or brush, or anything that might help you dig into the surface of the ice, use it to help pull yourself out.

5. Kick your feet as though you were swimming. Pull yourself up as you continue kicking.

6. Once on the ice surface, do not stand up. Stay flat and roll away from the hole. This distributes your weight more evenly and decreases your chances of breaking through the ice again.

Venturing out onto lake ice and seeing the world from a completely new vantage is an appealing activity. But every time I see an ice fisherman or a snowmobiler rocketing off across a hardened pond, I can’t help but think of Sgt. Esterhaus’s trademark phrase from Hill Street Blues: “Let’s be careful out there.”

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4 Responses to Falling Through the Ice

  1. John Clark says:

    I had the dubious pleasure of going through the ice on Embden Pond about 15 years ago. It was a spring hole ten feet from shore and I was very fortunate to throw my arms out and stop when I was chest deep. However it was February and the wind chill had my clothing stiff as a board in minutes. Two weeks later, I was fishing up the lake a hundred yards or so and looked at the spot where I went through. Two snowmobiles were parked right over it. If anything the experience taught me you can never be too careful on the ice in Maine.

  2. My grandparents had a farm on which there was a fairly large spring-fed farm pond stocked with fish. When I was five or six, my grandfather introduced me to ice fishing. Since he lived right there, he had no need for a fishing shack. He just cut a large round hole in the ice and dropped in a line attached to some sort of contraption that kept it from being pulled into the hole. That hole must have been at least a foot in diameter. I know that because I have pictures and because, although I managed to avoid falling in, my dog, Skippy, did go for an unexpected and very cold swim. Fortunately, Grampa was able to pull him out. These days we have a very small pond (the original Moosetookalook) on our Christmas tree farm, one we created to drain a swampy area. During Christmas tree season, little kids have a tendency to head straight for it and, if it is iced over, out onto it. It isn’t very deep, but it doesn’t need to be to be dangerous, so this year we put one of those bright orange plastic fences around it. It’s kinda ugly, but better safe than sorry, right?

  3. MCWriTers says:

    When we were little, it my dad’s job to go a chop a hole in the ice (Sennebec Pond, by the way) to see if it was thick enough to walk on.

    When my boys were little, we lived near a river, and we always said we had the second one because the first was so busy and adventurous he was sure to be the kid who fell through the ice. Luckily, he never did…but we would later learn that he had been out on the river.

    I have a whole file of warden stories about Moosehead Lake, and the places it never freezes. So sad and scary. Thank you for taking us into that world.

    Kate

  4. Lea Wait says:

    When I was doing research for my books set in early 19th century Wiscasset I read the diaries writen from 1\about 1775-1815 of a man who lived on Davbis Island (next to Fort Edgecomb, for those who know the area,) across the Sheepscot River from Wiscasset. He wrote of his wife’s giving birth in basic terms: “Had to go fetch the Mrs. Trask today. Boys born, 4 a.m.. All cleverly.” (“Cleverly” meant fine.) And reported other local events as disspasionately, although he saw one of his daughters, a young bride, apparenty returned to her parents by her husband when she “went out of her mind and needed watching and restraining” and eventually died. One of the saddest entries is about a son, aged about 12, who, he wrote, he’d “warned again” not to walk to see his friend his Wiscasst over the Sheepscot River, which had been frozen all winter between Davis Island and Wiscasset. It was March; his son fell through the ice and his body was never found. Just as a global warming note: The Sheepscot hasn’t been frozen between Wiscasset and Davis Island in
    over a hundred and fifty years.