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The Northwoods River News | Rhinelander, Wisconsin

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January 18, 2020

12/7/2019 7:26:00 AM
The Lake Where You Live
Hidden hazards
Ted Rulseh

As I wrote this last Sunday, we had the better part of 2 feet of snow, much of it the heavy kind, on our lakes.

That makes foot travel quite difficult. It also makes it hard to judge the condition of the ice. Then there's the slush that likely has formed as the snow pushed down on the ice and forced water up through the cracks and onto the surface.

That's definitely the case on Birch Lake, where I live. Before the snowfalls, a seemingly stable ice sheet had formed. Now I question how stable it remains. If I venture out it will be with great care. Meanwhile some of our lakes (maybe yours) were, as of Sunday, still open, and others no doubt had ice coatings that were fragile at best.

So this is a good time for those planning to traverse the ice to ponder how to equip themselves, just in case. As I've written before, the risk of falling through lake ice has less to do with drowning and more to do with hypothermia. Water right near freezing temperature can suck heat out of a body very quickly.

If you fall in, there's a need to get out as fast as possible. So, how can you maximize your chance of doing so? A great resource for all topics related to winter lake recreation is the Lake Ice website at Here you'll find a great deal of information on how to prepare for ice travel and how to get out of the water if you break through.

One essential safety tool is a pair of ice claws. My son made a pair for me by embedding a nail, point exposed, in each of two sections of wooden dowel connected by a string. You feed the string through one coat sleeve, around your neck, and back through the other sleeve. If you fall through, you can grab the claws, jam them into the ice, and get traction to pull yourself out.

A flotation device is wise to have. The website says, "It looks like at least half the 53 people who died in North America during the 2013 ice season would have survived if they had flotation." The best option is a flotation-type suit, but a life jacket works almost as well. Some snowmobile suits have flotation capability.

Of course, once you're out of the water, you're still at risk facing a long walk to shelter in wet clothing in frigid air. So your choice of clothing can be critical. Cotton clothing is a poor insulator when dry and even worse when wet. Wool and synthetics like polypropylene are better; even when soaked they retain some insulating ability. A dry suit or wet suit offers perhaps the ultimate in protection.

There's much more information on the website. Meanwhile, your best precaution is to go out with a friend or, if really unsure about the ice, stay on shore and wait for more cold weather to firm things up.

Ted Rulseh resides on Birch Lake in Harshaw and is an advocate for lake protection and improvement. His Lakeland Times and Northwoods River News columns are the basis for a book, "A Lakeside Companion," published by The University of Wisconsin Press. Ted may be reached at

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