Ice safety: DNR, emergency personnel urge caution on area lakes and flowages

By Jalen Maki

Tomahawk Leader Co-Editor

NORTHERN WISCONSIN – With ice conditions in northern Wisconsin currently in a poor and unsafe state, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and local emergency personnel are urging extreme caution on Northwoods lakes and flowages and providing safety tips before venturing onto the ice.

DNR’s Harrenstein discusses signs of poor ice, areas to avoid

DNR Law Enforcement Supervisor Bryan Harrenstein advises those planning on snowmobiling or ice fishing on an area water body to call ahead. Local DNR offices, snowmobile clubs, bait shops, fishing clubs and resorts are likely to know the conditions of trails and ice, he said.

Harrenstein stated that, although they may be covered by recent snow, dark spots on the ice mean water is close to the surface or coming through, whether it’s a via a spring or water moving underneath. He stressed that those areas are unsafe and should be avoided.

He added that although lakes with less current may seem less dangerous, there could be springs underneath, and recommended that ice fishers regularly check ice thickness.

Harrenstein also advised avoiding areas where two rivers or streams come together, along with inlets and outlets on lakes.

“That’s where most of the water is moving, and usually the worst ice,” he said.

“It’s hard to tell people coming up, because you want people to come to the area, but right now, when we know the ice is bad, don’t go to areas you’re not familiar with,” Harrenstein stated.

DNR: Slow down, stay on marked trails

The DNR recommends the following tips regarding safe snowmobile operation:

Slow down. Speed is a contributing factor in nearly all fatal snowmobiling accidents. Drivers should proceed at a pace that will allow ample reaction time for any situation. Drive at moderate speeds, and drive defensively, especially after sunset.

Carry a first-aid kit and dress appropriately. Your first-aid kit should include a flashlight, knife, compass, map, and waterproof matches. Always wear a helmet with goggles or a face shield to prevent injuries from twigs and flying debris. Wear layers of water-repellent clothing and make sure you have no loose ends that might catch in the machine or tangle in equipment.

Avoid traveling across bodies of water when uncertain of ice thickness or water currents. Rapidly changing weather and moving water in streams and lake inlets also affect the thickness and strength of ice on lakes and ponds. Snow cover can act as a blanket and prevents thick strong ice from forming.

Stay on marked trails or, where allowed, on the right shoulder of the road. Be alert for fences, tree stumps and stretched wire that may be concealed by snow.

Never travel alone. Most snowmobile accidents result in personal injury. The most dangerous situations occur when a person is injured and alone. If you must travel alone, tell someone your destination, planned route, and when you will return.

Nyberg, Richert provide first responders’ perspective

Tomahawk Fire Department Chief Brent “Beetle” Nyberg and Nokomis Fire Department Chief Don Richert discussed ice safety from the viewpoint of the first responders’ community.

Nyberg noted that the role of first responders, in regards to ice safety, usually comes into play after precautions are not taken, whether purposely or not.

Richert stated that emergency personnel in the area knew ice conditions were bad previously to the incident that took place on Lake Nokomis early in the morning on Sunday Jan. 5, when three snowmobilers went into the water, resulting in the deaths of two people.

He said the poor ice conditions can hamper emergency personnel’s efforts during a “high-stress, low-frequency emergency” like the one that occurred on Lake Nokomis last week.

Richert and Nyberg estimated first responders had to walk roughly 100 yards from where rescue operations were based on River Road to get to the scene on Lake Nokomis.

“We had six inches of snow, eight inches of slush, and an ice pack where you didn’t know if you were standing on an inch or four inches,” Richert said. “We exhausted our rescuers in the first probably 20 minutes of that call just to walk out there. You’re walking out in suits that don’t breathe. They’re water resistant. You don’t have very good footing, and it’s not a form-fitting suit, so now you’re walking through the snow and the slush, and as the temperature decreases, anything you have on starts to freeze. So now your feet are frozen, and it’s hard to move.”

As rescue operations had to be moved further onto the ice, the safety of first responders became a factor, Richert explained.

“We only have so many safety suits on the scene. They have to be in the water so they can do their jobs,” he said. He added that the line tenders, who man the lines attached to personnel who are in the water, wore life vests and had to be moved further out onto what was already deemed “bad ice,” putting their safety at increased risk.

No safe ice

Richert said one dangerous thing that is happening right now is that, with some colder temperatures recently, ice is starting to form on places that previously had open water, and that might give people incorrect impressions about the safety of the ice.

“Now the open holes are glazing over. So the first thing you’re gonna hear is ‘Hey, look, ice is formed. We’re good. Everything is freezing over. Why aren’t they opening up these lakes? Why aren’t they opening up everything for snowmobiles and ATVs?’ Just because it glazes over doesn’t mean it’s safe,” he said, adding, “The weather conditions, whether it gets cold or not, you’re still not going to have anything safe out there.”

Richert stressed that the general public “to heed the warnings that have been put out for ice conditions.”

“You have to take a step back and listen to the warnings going out there to keep as many people as you can safe,” he stated.

One example of deteriorated and unsafe ice conditions can be found on the Willow Flowage.

Nyberg, who has ice fished on the Willow Flowage for decades, said he won’t be making a trek onto the ice there in the near future due to its unsafe state. He said he’s spoken to numerous other ice fishermen who have seen open water, what he calls “thaw holes,” in places on the flowage that usually only have them in spring.

Nyberg stressed that ice conditions can vary greatly not only from water body to water body, but from place to place on specific water bodies, especially with the warm temperatures and rain the area has gotten recently. He noted that at one spot on the Willow Flowage there was eight to 10 inches of ice, but no ice in another area.

“I’ve never seen a variation of ice conditions like we’ve got this year, and I’ve been fishing the Willow Flowage for over 40 years,” he said. “I won’t go out there, and I know the places to avoid. Those thaw holes are dangerous.”

First responders at risk during rescue operations

First responders are put at risk when people choose to go out onto unsafe ice and have to be rescued, Richert noted. Along with emergency personnel having to go out onto unsafe ice, trucks and vehicles also have to travel on roads that might be in poor condition to get to the scene of an incident.

Nyberg and Richert stated that they tell drivers to make sure they arrive at the scene safely, yet in a timely manner.

“The safety of the whole thing starts at the station. We remind the people driving the trucks, ‘You have to get there.’” Richert said. “If we roll a truck or have an accident involving a truck, you take out how many responders that you could’ve had. Safety starts there.”

“It won’t do anybody any good if you don’t make it there,” Nyberg added.

Respect the ice, emergency personnel

Overall, Nyberg and Richert want people to keep both their own safety and the safety of others in mind when considering going onto local water bodies.

“There are hazards out there,” Nyberg said. “You’ve got to respect that ice.”

“Respect the ice, but also respect the people in emergency services,” Richert added. “We’re ones coming out if something does go wrong. We’re the ones putting our lives on the line. We’re all volunteers up here. The people who have accidents, they have families, but they have to understand that we have families, too, and they worry about us tremendously. If we don’t come back, it’s a blow dealt to our families also.”

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