Extra care, caution always best when going out on ice

Here in the Upper Peninsula, our Great Lakes shorelines and inland waterways are a point of pride for many outdoorsmen and women.

It seems nearly every year that once the waters freeze over to a respectable thickness, ice shanties begin popping up quickly, creating what looks like tiny little tent communities spread across the frozen tundra.

Snowmobilers, too, with their brightly painted machines and reflective cold-weather gear, can be seen zipping across the wide open ice-covered waters in an exhilarating thrill ride, or puttering to and from hauling a sled of equipment and supplies.

It’s also not uncommon to see full-fledged, four-wheeled vehicles — cars, trucks and SUVs — out there on the ice, and every now and then vehicles with skis and masts used in the growing sport of ice sailing.

And, of course, plenty of people also simply walk, snowshoe or ski over the ice.

We find it difficult not to turn our attention toward safety and the ice conditions on our regional waterways.

In a press release issued about this time last year, Michigan Department of Natural Resources Lt. Tom Wanless said there are several factors that can determine the strength of ice.

For example, clear ice that has a bluish tint is the strongest. Ice formed by melted and refrozen snow appears milky and often is porous and weak, and ice that’s covered by snow should always be considered unsafe, as the snow acts like an insulating blanket and slows the freezing process.

The DNR also doesn’t recommend the standard “inch-thickness” guide to determine ice safety. A minimum of 4 inches of clear ice is needed to support an average person’s weight but as ice seldom forms at a uniform rate, it is important to check the thickness with a spud and ruler every few steps.

The Ninth Coast Guard District in 2012 made an official blog post that listed facts about ice. Those include:

— Direct freezing of lake water is stronger than ice formed by melting snow or refrozen ice.

— Obstructions like rocks, logs, vegetation and pilings affect ice strength, and can slow ice formation.

— Underwater streams or springs will cause weak spots at the surface.

— Ice located near the shore may be unsafe due to pressures outward and upward, which cause cracks to appear. Ice closer to shore is weaker because of shifting, expansion and sunlight reflecting off the bottom.

Those who break through the ice should try to stay calm and don’t remove winter clothing — rather than drag the individual down, heavy clothes may actually trap air to provide warmth and flotation. The person in the water should head in the direction he or she came from and, if available, use ice picks or ice claws to climb and slide back out onto the ice. From there, roll away from the broken ice to keep weight more evenly distributed and get off the ice. Then get to shelter and warmth, change into dry clothing and consume nonalcoholic, non-caffeinated drinks. Call 911 and seek medical attention if any symptoms appear of hypothermia, such as feeling disoriented or uncontrollable shivering.

Get outside and enjoy all that the region has to offer, but those who step onto the ice should make sure they do so safely.