Last Saturday, with temperatures hovering in the mid-teens, an experienced ice-angler died when his ATV broke through the ice on Lake Waubesa. A few days prior, a woman walking her dog fell through the ice near the Spring Harbor Boat Launch but was saved thanks to the quick thinking of a nearby fisherman.
It might seem jarring to be talking about unsafe ice, considering that our current temperatures are having a hard time even getting into positive numbers, but as Sgt. Kyle McNally of the Dane County Sheriff’s Office told the Wisconsin State Journal, “A repetitive theme I’m getting in this business is that ice is never safe, and that’s not a cliché. It does weird stuff.”
While it appears that these recent incidents were likely the result of thinner ice near the outflows of drainage pipes and rivers flowing into the lake, they also fit into trends that researchers have been warning about for some time. A 2020 paper in the journal PLOS ONE found that drownings related to unsafe lake ice are on the rise, while other studies have shown that climate change is making lake ice less reliable.
Of course, here at the Center for Limnology, we are big proponents of our frozen lakes. In fact, we hope to see hundreds of local residents at the Clean Lakes Alliance’s Frozen Assets Festival this Saturday (at last check on Jan. 23rd the CLA reported the ice near the Edgewater Hotel was 14 inches thick – well beyond the general rule of thumb of 4 inches).
Winter can be a magical time when access to the lakes is open to just about anyone – no boat required. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t steps we can take to minimize our risk when we’re out on the ice. If you do choose to enjoy our lakes in their frozen state, we completely understand – just make sure you’re familiar with this short list of tips from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
- Dress warmly in layers.
- Don’t go alone. Head out with friends or family. Take a cell phone if available, and make sure someone knows where you are and when you are expected to return.
- Know before you go. Don’t travel in areas you are not familiar and don’t travel at night or during reduced visibility.
- Avoid inlets, outlets or narrows that may have current that can thin the ice.
- Look for clear ice, which is generally stronger than ice with snow on it or bubbles in it.
- Carry some basic safety gear: ice claws or picks, a cellphone in a waterproof bag or case, a life jacket and length of rope.
The WDNR has more, including what to do if you do fall through, on their website and we highly recommend giving it a read. https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/Education/OutdoorSkills/IceSafety