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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

On Thin Ice

Breaking Through and Moving On —
Self-Rescue and More

By Farwell Forrest

April 12, 2005

Craak! One minute you're standing on solid ice. (Well, it looked solid, anyway.) The next minute you've broken through. You're in the water. Cold water. VERY cold water. It can happen just that fast. What do you do now?

First things first. You're in the water. You want out. So do what comes naturally: kick hard and grab ice. Try to pull yourself up onto a solid surface. You might get lucky. Of course, if you're the kind of person who likes to make his (or her) own luck, you've probably come prepared. You're wearing a foam life vest, for one thing. That gives you both flotation and insulation in one tidy package. For my part, I swap my usual insulated vest for my life vest anytime I think a winter walk may take me across ice. It works fine in this dual role, though it's a good idea to check how your vest copes with cold temperatures. Some foams become brittle. Others stiffen up till the vest becomes a straitjacket. Anything else? Yes. If you're really thinking ahead, you'll also be wearing a shorty wetsuit and neoprene socks under your other clothes. Too restrictive? Synthetic fleece makes a pretty good second-best, and light wool is an acceptable runner-up. On the other hand, canvas overalls, heavy wool cruisers, and barn boots — standard wear in some ice-fishing circles — are probably the worst alternative of all.

It's not enough just to dress for success, however. Ice is slippery, right? If you're a paid-up member of the Be Prepared Club you'll have a couple of ice picks dangling on a lanyard threaded through your parka sleeves. They'll help you get a grip. (To prevent unwelcome accidents, put cork or plastic guards over the tips. Aquarium tubing works pretty well.) Better yet, fit a rescue hook on your unaak, on the end opposite the ice probe. It's a time-tested idea. But don't use just any hook. It has to be sharp, and it has to be strong. A salvaged boat hook will do the trick, or at least it will if it's a real, old-fashioned boat hook, made to grab hold of a wooden piling and not let go. So will a pulp or stevedore's hook, suitably modified. Whatever hook you decide on, give some thought about how you'll attach it. A twice-pinned socket is good, as is a riveted strap fitting. And once you've finished the job, test the hook before you trust your life to it. If it will hold your weight when you drive it into an overhead limb, it passes the test. If it won't, try again. Or buy a long-shafted mountaineer's ice ax, instead. The spike makes a pretty fair probe, and the ice-ax pick, though a bit on the long side, will work as a rescue hook.

The choice is yours. Anything with a sharp point is better than nothing, and even a belt knife will give you a much better shot at grabbing ice than your mittened hands. But an unaak gives you something more: a long reach. This greatly increases your chances of finding sound ice for the hook to bite into. Whichever tool you have with you, however — or even if you have none — move fast. You've got only a few minutes to get yourself out of the water before the cold saps your strength and leaves you helpless. And what happens if you ever go all the way under? This is nightmare scenario time, particularly if there's a current running. Now you have only seconds to act. If the gasp reflex hasn't already filled your lungs with icy water and put an end to your worries forever, don't waste time kicking yourself for not wearing your life jacket. Kick your way toward the surface, instead. Your winter clothes will trap enough air to buoy you up for a short time. Open your eyes and look for the dark circle that marks the place where you broke through. Now head for it. That's right — head for the dark circle. This is one time when you really want things to look black.

It's much better not to find yourself in this situation, of course. And perhaps the best way to improve your odds is to travel with a buddy. If you keep your distance from each other, there's little chance that you'll both break through at the same time, even on thin ice. Whenever Tamia and I cross suspect terrain we rope up, tying onto a rope like climbers about to tackle a steep pitch. The rope then becomes a lifeline if either of us goes in the water. After testing the ice at her feet, the high-and-dry partner plants the rescue hook on her unaak and rigs a belay. Then the swimmer simply hauls himself out, hand over hand. Skis or snowshoes will make the job much harder, though. That's why we loosen our bindings before heading out across the ice. (One advantage of traditional thong-and-toe-strap snowshoe bindings is the ease with which they can be thrown off. It's also their greatest disadvantage.)

Suppose you haven't roped up, however. What then? Well, you remember the old saying about fools rushing in, don't you? It certainly applies on ice. The only thing worse than one person thrashing around in the water is two people doing the same dance. OK. What should you do? The second-best option for the high-and-dry partner is just to stay put and give her companion a chance to demonstrate his self-rescue skills. And what's the number-one choice? Extend a helping hand. Not just any helping hand, though. You want something that's long and rigid. Something that floats. Sound familiar? I'll bet it does. You want a boat.

This isn't much help if you're skiing, obviously, though we've used a big plastic sled to assist cold-water swimmers more than once. But if you're a canoeist or kayaker who's run into trouble while trying to get his boat across an ice shelf, you're in luck. You've got the best rescue platform in the world right there on the ice with you: your boat. And how do you use it? Maybe you've heard the sailor's maxim, "One hand for the ship and one for yourself." Substitute "foot" for "hand," and you've got it. One foot for the ship and one for yourself. One foot stays in the boat. One foot goes on the ice. Do this, and you can push a canoe across ice like a scooter. And if your partner's already in the water, you've got the perfect way to help him out. Obviously, some boats are better at this than others. A tandem canoe is just about ideal. In fact, two paddlers can scooter a tandem safely across even badly rotted ice, with little danger that either one of them will get a dunking. On the other hand, a solo canoe may prove a rather tippy platform, and most kayaks will have to be "dog-paddled" while lying prone on the deck, or hunched painfully forward on the occupant's hands. Still, either approach is a lot better than going it alone. In fact, some variation on this theme is probably the safest way to negotiate any short stretch of ice that can't be carried around.

It won't necessarily be easy, however. Ice may be slippery, but "wild" ice — ice that hasn't been polished by a Zamboni® or resurfaced by a recent overflow — is like coarse sandpaper. It can tear hell out of the bottom of a poly or 'glass boat in nothing flat. Not surprisingly, aluminum canoes take rough surfaces in stride. But there's a downside to "tin tanks," too: they don't slide very well. In fact, even plastic boats prove surprisingly sluggish craft on ice. The cure? Take a lesson from the circumpolar peoples. If you anticipate a long trek over the ice, consider bringing a light plastic sled. Then, when the going gets hard, strap your boat on the sled. And if scootering becomes too tedious or difficult? Get out of your boat and pull it behind you on a painter. (WARNING! If there are two of you in harness at the same time, this is no place for togetherness. Give each other plenty of space.) You're more likely to go swimming while man-hauling your boat than if you kept one foot in the bilge, of course, but you'll travel faster. It's your choice. At least you'll have a rescue platform near at hand should the need arise. Don't make things worse for yourself, though. No matter how hot you get playing Volga boatman, keep you life jacket on.

Ice is just hard water, and few backcountry paddlers will be able to avoid it altogether. Nor would most of us want to. But isn't it dangerous to venture out on ice? Yes. Always. And only you can determine if the risk is worth it. If you decide it is, however, take heart. A little preparation can make a big difference. So chill out. You don't have to let ice stop you cold.

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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