Ice Safety




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Van Claussen

The subject of ice safety as it relates to skating, skate-sailing, and ice-boating is difficult to present.  How do you dispel a lot of unjustified fears without encouraging a contrasting attitude of over-confidence and carelessness?

No hard and fast rules can be formulated, but some explanations, suggestions, experiences, and precautions can be offered to serve as a foundation upon which you may build your own understanding.

Urban dwellers, in anticipating and planning week-ends out of town during the winter, must first of all remember that conditions in the open country are quite different from those existing in the city.  Often, when it is warm and mild in the city and suburbs, it is cold enough form ice on a lake only twenty-five or fifty miles away.  Altitude has a great deal to do with this; a difference in elevation of 1,200 feet between city and lake will often yield a full ten degrees difference in temperatures.  When it is 40 F. in the city, it is below freezing at the lake.  

It is wise to ask the local residents when you visit the lake during the summer or on a fall hike and find out from them what conditions are usually like during the winter.  If possible, try to arrange with some of them to furnish you information by telephone on a Friday night as you can then judge what conditions will probably prevail over the week-end.  However, from experience we have learned that it is generally necessary to cross-examine your informant and then draw your own conclusions.  Country people living right at a lake rarely do much skating or sailing themselves, and have vague ideas of how much ice and what other conditions are necessary, but they can tell you what the ice looks like and about how thick it is, and whether or not there is snow on the surface etc.

As a rule it is hard to find ice until after the first one or two light falls of snow.  These chill the water to the point where it is ready to freeze on the first still cold night.  A windy night, almost regardless of how cold it is, will not make ice early in the season.  The wind helps a whole lot however by chilling the water, not only in the shallow places but in the deeper portions towards the center of the lake. 

The shallow coves of large lakes, and small shallow ponds freeze first.   The reason for this is that the snow and cold winds act on the surface water and chill it.  The chilled water, due to its greater density, sinks to the bottom and is replaced by warmer water which keeps working its way upward and is in turned chilled and sinks.  When it has all been chilled to its point of greatest density, 39 F., this circulation ceases and soon thereafter ice begins to form on the surface.  Obviously, shallow water will be chilled through quicker than will deep water.

The ice builds up its thickness from underneath.  In clear, crisp, quiet freezing weather it will make about an inch over night until it is around six inches thick; after that the rate is much slower.

Early Season Ice

Early season ice, which has formed on a windless night, is usually clear, hard and transparent, actually blank looking and smooth as glass.  Thickness for thickness, this is the strongest and safest ice of the season; two inches of such ice will hold small groups of four to five people with safety.  However, such ice is usually found in small sheltered wood ponds or in the shallow coves of a lake, and in these localities it is very important to watch out for thin spots or open water around the mouth of small streams flowing into it or even underwater springs that feed the lake from the bottom. 

Ice cannot form readily around flowing water, so your woodcraft will have to be used to spot the likely locations of such weak spots.  Remember also that as ice forms first in shallow places; the center of a pond or lake usually freezes last.  So even if the ice is thick enough to hold you near shore on a small pond, be cautious about approaching the center until you have actually tested it.

To Test Ice

Probably the commonest way of testing ice, is to heave a few large rocks on it; this is a good rule-of-thumb method, but as the rock s are seldom removed, it doesn't improve the ice any for skating. With your knife, the heel of your skate, or anything similar chop small holes at several places, about large enough to get your hand through, and actually feel the thickness.  

With some experience you can also tell a lot about the quality of the ice by the way your knife chops through it.  If the ice is clear and transparent, you can see the thickness by bits of grass or leaves frozen against the under side, or by the delicate white lines of air bubbles, or the silvery sheen of a tension crack.  It is not an uncommon sight to see small minnows and sometimes a good sized sunfish frozen against the under side of such ice.

When good early season black ice forms during the week, it is often covered with an inch or two of dry powdery snow before the weekend.  Such snow will not hinder the skating in the least, but will make necessary more than ordinary care in examining the ice before venturing on it.  One satisfaction lies in the fact that if there are any open spots or actual cracks, these will be shown be wet snow or a long glassy scar of frozen snow.

An extremely important thing to remember about early season skating is that groups should never skate abreast.  Early season ice is so dense in quality that it will bend and roll in waves before it will break.  This is the "rubber ice" you may remember from your boyhood.  Such action is indicative of an approaching danger point.  Skating abreast or in close groups, so concentrates the mass of weight that it causes these waves on ice that would be perfectly safe for the same number of people skating more irregularly and separated. 

It is also important to remember that cracks should be crossed as nearly at right angles as possible; do not skate or glide along close to a crack and nearly parallel with it, or cross it at a long gradual angle.  Best of all, if cracks develop in early season ice, get off it for the rest of the day and give it a chance to freeze up solid over night.  

As the season progresses and the ice gets thicker, little fear need be felt as to the amount of activity on it; four to six inches of good ice will support good sized crowds.  Generally, however, extra care must always be used in getting on the ice from the shore.  The ice is least dependable close to shore-that is, close enough to step out on it, and it is best practice to have a plank or two in order to avoid occasionally getting in over your shoe tops.

Snow on ice an inch or two of anything but the wettest snow will not interfere with ordinary skating, sailing or ice-boating.  You can skate right through it, especially with long tubular skates.  If a short thaw or a little rain comes, followed by a freeze-up, the resultant crust on the snow will effectually kill all ice sports for the time being.  Such a crust will be glistening and icy in appearance when viewed from the shore, but it will have a very white color due to the loose unfrozen snow underneath, and it almost always has a wavy undulating surface plainly indicating that it is not suitable for skating.  A longer thaw or a good heavy rain will succeed in wetting the covering of snow completely through, and then if a freeze-up follows there is a good probability of skating, although in this case also the surface will not be particularly smooth.  

Sixteen to eighteen inch tubular skates with a good substantial pair of shoes will give the best results on any outdoor ice; the shorter tubes, hockey skates and figure skates are unsatisfactory to use on anything but good smooth ice. With an eighteen inch tube, you can skate and get a good day's fun on ice that is so rough that a figure or a regular hockey skate could not take a stroke, and unlikely as it may seem, the same thing applies with reference to soft mushy ice towards the latter part of the season.

Snow Ice

After a snow-fall has been wet through and frozen, making "snow ice" on top of the original black ice, sailing and speed skating should only be indulged in with caution until you have thoroughly been all over the surface.  The snow may have drifted in spots, and some of these not having soaked completely through, will only have a crust on them which may or may not support the weight of a skater.  A nasty fall can be taken by running into one of these with any speed.

Clear rain on good ice, or in fact any wetting of the surface, make wonderfully fast ice for skating or sailing.  It means wet feet after a short time, and plenty of wet clothes in case of a fall, but the ease with which you glide over the surface is one of the thrills that will be talked about far into the following summer!

Shell Ice

Beware, however, when a following cold night freezes this surface water on the ice.  It invariably causes large patches of "shell ice," indicated by irregular white splotches usually a foot or two in area, but often several yards square.  This is very thin ice apparently frozen over a layer of air imprisoned between itself and the solid ice beneath.  When you skate through this shell ice, it crashes like the shattering of hundreds of panes of window glass and until you become accustomed to it, the sound will give the hardiest skater something of a heart flutter at every crash.  Also, if you are using short skates, you are extremely liable to trip and severely lacerated hands or face will be the result.

On a week-end following a few days of high winds, be extremely careful about approaching anywhere near the edge of ice bordering on open water, regardless of how thick the rest of the ice may be.  A wind will eat into ice quicker than a fog will, provided it finds any open holes in which it can start churning up the water.  You can almost see such holes get larger, and the ice surrounding the hole is certain to be eaten away from underneath until it is mere surface shell. 

Sometimes this undermining extends for fifty to one hundred feet under the edge against which the wind has been working.  Gusty, squally wind acts on ice like any other form of pressure on a semi-flexible diaphragm.  Along the shores the water can plainly be seen welling up and receding.  This friction and agitation of the water also undoubtedly affects its temperature, starting a circulation which further tends to undermine weak spots.  Use your judgment about approaching such open spots, as it stands to reason that the ice surrounding a hole one foot in diameter is not likely to be undermined as extensively as that around a ten foot opening, or along the edges of an opening in the deep portions of the lake.

Often on a still, clear, cold night towards the middle of the season, the ice on a large lake will be heard to boom and rend like the rumble of heavy thunder.  The tone is distinctive and not unmusical in its own way; once heard it is never forgotten, especially if it occurs while you are enjoying a moonlight skate!  Water expands as it freezes, but after it has formed, ice itself responds to the ordinary laws of expansion and contraction under the influences of heat and cold.  Thus, in the coldness of the night the ice rends itself in contracting and sometimes opens long black cracks several inches wide. The lines of tension usually develop with considerable regularity as to location year after year-probably influenced by the location of islands, points or "narrows."

Pressure Ridges

Under the influence of a warm sun or a warm wind, the ice will expand and develop tremendous pressure not only within itself but against any object that blocks its expansion.   The motion is imperceptible, but it will overturn docks, smash concrete foundations and cause general havoc.  Also, more than likely, a high ridge of ice will be formed along a "pressure ridge" well out in the lake and along the same lines of tension mentioned above.

Pressure ridges are formed by the buckling of the ice under pressure.  Sometimes it results in a downward buckle, leaving a shelving depression which quickly fills with water.  Sometimes a cake snaps forward as it buckles downward and shoots underneath, leaving a large gaping hole.  The greater portion of the buckling is usually upward with the glistening cakes piled helter-skelter at any angle until they often form fantastic amphitheatres, or long impassable walls like those of a miniature fortified city.  

Treat pressure ridges with due respect.  The ice that has buckled downward into relatively warmer water is likely to soften.  Even if it should break loose and float during the day, then freeze in solid during the night, it would be unreliable and dangerous.   Constant, tremendous pressure develops in a ridge until a point is reached where something has to give way in order to relieve it.  Be cautious about approaching too near or skating along in a group, as this ridge may only require this slight additional weight to develop a fracture exactly at that point. 

 If for any reason it is necessary to cross a pressure ridge, the safest method is to do so with the aid of planks or a rope, but often by carefully skating along and examining conditions, a safe crossing can be found.  Note the landmarks and bearings of the spot after you have crossed, otherwise you will find surprising difficulty in locating it again on your return.  By all means examine it carefully a second time before attempting to cross, as considerable change may have been wrought in a comparatively short time.


Moderately heavy snow, three to five inches thick, will not necessarily kill skating or sailing on large lakes.  Usually such snow is accompanied by a wind which will keep a sufficient area clear to afford a weekend's pleasure.  It may mean a bit of a hike around the lake to find such an open spot, or it may mean a bit of shoveling to clear away a drift or two in order to connect two small areas into one large enough for skating.  

Snow which falls on a quiet windless night places an even coating over everything.  Then shoveling or scraping is necessary to clear a space if the snow is heavy.  You can skate through three inches of dry powdery snow and it is lots of fun.  To clear away heavier snow, a couple of homemade one man "pushers" and one shovel for handling the piles, are better than several shovels.  More power and plenty of fun can be had in operating the pushers if one man, with his skates on, holds and guides it while a team of two or three, one behind the other, skate and push him. 

 In clearing a rink, run the scraper around in a rough oval and then two intersecting cross paths; push each of the quarter areas into a pile and skate around them; in this way if you are still ambitious or if newcomers want to enlarge the rink, it is not necessary to move snow piled around the outer edge.

Towards the end of the season, when skating is all over for the winter in the city, some of the best outdoor skating is found on lakes in the country.  Often the weather is mild enough to permit very light clothing and real cases of sun-burned noses and foreheads are sometimes caused by the strongly reflected rays of the sun!  But, this is the danger time for any but the most experienced ice men.  Ice at this time of the year is quickly "honeycombed" by the hot sun. T he surface is covered with a fine net work of hair-like lines arranged in something of a honeycomb pattern, like the finely crazed surface of an antique porcelain or an old porcelain kitchen sink.  These lines are tiny but complete cracks extending clear through ice as much as five and six inches thick.

Honeycombed Ice 

Honeycombed ice is nothing but millions and millions of long vertical crystals.  A cake of it is like a bundle of lead pencils held together with a rubber band.  With your finger you can push out one pencil or several of them.  With a stick, or the heel of your skate, and sometimes even with your finger, you can do exactly the same thing with honeycombed ice.  If you are skating and run onto it, your feet will plunge through deeper than through ordinary thin ice, and the crumbing edges refuse to give any support at all.  This is the truly dangerous ice if one is careless enough to run onto it.  

Honeycombed patches are usually darker in appearance than the surrounding ice and therefore often deceiving; they actually look better than really good snow ice.  Look carefully for honeycomb ice any time during the latter part of the season, when a couple of good, bright, warm days have occurred during the week.  At this time of the season water on the ice is common and conditions may be judged reasonably safe just as long as the water remains on the surface.  Beware, however, the moment that water drains off; that is a sign of honeycombed ice.

Salt Water Ice 

Salt water ice, or ice on tidal rivers, requires special study and experience, as it is less dependable in quality and is more easily affected by changes in the weather, winds and breaking-up by the rise and fall of tide.  Large areas often freeze over in a back-water, thus affording good skating, but if the middle of the river is open and large floes are moving down with the current, be on the watch in case a floe swirls around and is driven against I the good ice on which you are skating.  It may drive in like a wedge with irresistible force and open wide cracks, some of which may maroon you from shore.  

Where bars exist, or the underwater wreckage of an old long pier, or where the edge of a large shallow area shelves off into the deeper water of the channel, large floes are usually driven aground and become "anchor ice."   Successive floes are driven upon it or are grounded behind it until a relatively large area of still water is impounded between the shore and the shelter of this ice ridge.  This affords excellent opportunities for a good smooth freeze-up, but as such conditions depend on the grounding of the anchor ice, they are not likely to occur until after the middle of the season.  A few warm days will quickly weaken skating ice of the this character even before the anchor ice has been undermined and crumbled away, or a warm wind blowing in from the sea will cause a heavy fog and quickly turn the surface into slush.

Never Go Out Alone 

Probably the most important thing to remember in connection with ice sports, is that one should never go out alone.  Always have some buddies with you whether they actually skate with you or not.  Also have some safety appliances handy; hunt up a good stout pole or a long plank, not too heavy to handle, and place them on the ice near the shore where they can readily be had if needed.  It is easier to obtain such things at your leisure in advance, than it is to locate them in the stress of an emergency.  A coil of light rope is without doubt the best and most practical safety outfit for ice use, and its negligible weight and bulk makes it possible for several members of the party to be so equipped.  It is far better to carry such equipment many times when it is not needed, and even to stand a few digs about over-cautiousness, than to be without it and bungle a rescue.

"Ice Awls" 

Another mighty good practice that is widely used abroad as a matter of individual precaution, is for each member of the party to carry a pair of "ice awls."  These are ordinary awls such as you can buy in any hardware store.  Cut off the points so that only 5/8 inch of metal remains protruding from the wood handle.  File each to a rounded point not necessarily sharp.  Drill a hole through the handle, near the top, and fasten a good stout piece of cord to each, about the length of your arm.  

The awls should be carried in the breast pocket on the outside of your shirt or with the cord wound around them and fastened to a buttonhole or with a safety-pin to the inside of the pocket. The points may be protected by sticking them into corks or into rubber stoppers.  A more presentable outfit can be made up with a small case of leather or canvas having a slight piece of metal at the bottom, or a double thickness of material, to protect the points.  

In case of sliding off the edge of ice into open water or going through a large hole, the awls can be quickly withdrawn and holding them like daggers, can be used as claws to pull yourself out flat on the ice and away from the edge.  There is no way in which your bare hands could get a grip on the smooth ice, and if you attempted to lift yourself out or place your knee on the edge to climb out, your weight would break the edges of the ice and only enlarge the hole and let you in for another ducking.  Pull yourself out flat on your stomach and remain that way until you are safely away from the thin ice.  

The next most important precaution is to wear good non-cotton clothing (see Clothing).  Equipped in this manner there is no paralyzing breath taking shock when you hit the water, and sliding into a hole in the ice is hardly more serious than jumping feet first into the water in summer.  The serious part of ice accidents, like practically all other so-called accidents, arises from panic and ignorance mainly due to the fact that you have heard over and over again vague tales of going through the ice and not coming up through the same hole again.  Perhaps you have mentally pictured the shock of jumping into icy waters as being a thousand times more breath-taking than stepping under an unexpectedly cold shower.  Under a shower the water acts directly on your skin; going into the ice, the water requires pretty nearly a full minute or more to soak through ordinary winter clothing, and if the material is all non-cotton there is no sudden shock of cold, nor do you feel particularly cold after climbing out.

Dropping Through the Ice 

What about these tales of "dropping through the ice and getting caught underneath?"  True enough in a way, but they do not present the whole picture, and particularly the part of the picture upon which instinctive self-confidence and quick action has to be built.  Remember this: if you are careless enough to be skating along on ice that you have not carefully looked over and you suddenly run on a thin portion so that you break through, the edge of the ice will check you instantly at the ankles or shins and throw you sprawling, not into the water but on top of the ice.  Perhaps this is Nature's method of protecting you from your own foolishness, since if you remain in a spread-eagle position your weight is evenly distributed over the greatest possible area, and nine times out of ten you can worm your way on your stomach to good ice, with nothing more than a wetting below the hips.  

This takes quick thinking and a self-control that is only obtained by familiarity with outdoor winter conditions and absolutely self-drilled calmness of mind.  The natural tendency is to try and scramble to your feet as quickly as possible.  As surely as you do this it will only result in putting your knee or your foot through the thin ice again and enlarging the hole, with a consequent second ducking somewhat deeper than the first.

Keep Calm 

The totally inexperienced person, who has been brought up on tales of the unknown terrors of ice, goes off in a frenzy of panic the moment that he realizes that he has broken through the surface.  He screams and claws and thrashes about, without realizing whether he is on the surface or underneath, he puts his foot or his knee through again and again until the hole is enlarged to a point where he has plenty of room to slide completely in and drown himself through his struggles.  This latter part is the portion of the accident usually witnessed by the time your attention is drawn to the fact that something is wrong, or is the part that most vividly remains in mind afterwards, and is probably the basis of the "eye-witness" descriptions of how it happened.

Even in cases where you slide off the ice into clear open water, or into a really large hole, experience has shown that you don't plunge immediately beneath the surface; you instinctively spread your legs and put out your arms to break the impact and this, with the air that is carried down in your clothing is sufficient to keep your head out.  You get splashed in the face, but you don't go under.  As said above, you won't feel any instantly paralyzing coldness of the water.  If you can swim at all, you can hook one arm over the edge of the ice until you get your awls out and pull yourself out on your stomach and away from the opening.

In honeycombed ice the situation is decidedly more serious, as it is almost impossible to get out by yourself.  In such a case, however, you can at least help yourself to the extent of cautiously trying to get out.  Then if the crumbing edges are too weak to give that much support, it is seldom that they are not strong enough to give tile little support necessary to keep you afloat until your buddies get a line or a plank to you.

Unfortunately for everyone interested in ice sports, it is impractical to deliberately go out and acquire experience in case of accident by actual practice, as you do in learning to swim or dive.  The best we can hope for is to have you definitely and accurately study ice conditions throughout the entire season; learn the different kinds of ice, learn what effect certain weather conditions have, learn the peculiarities of the formation of ice on the particular lakes or rivers where most of your activities are centered.  All this will tend to develop a sane, practical and self-reliant attitude that will enable you to avoid being caught in conditions which are likely to end in a so-called "accident," or will enable you to render prompt and efficient aid to others.






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Last modified: October 15, 2016.