With prolonged cold spells and bone-chilling sub-zero temperatures, the ice this year on Maine lakes and ponds is solid and safe for people and snowsleds, right?
During mid-January over one 24-hour period, no less than nine snowmobile operators and riders broke through thin ice with their sleds into icy waters. Miracles of miracles, all escaped drowning and potentially deadly hypothermia.
At Long Pond in Southwest Harbor, a man and two young girls broke through the ice on their snowsled and managed to swim to shore. Thanks to a worried relative and some quick thinking and fast action by first responders, the three were saved from a hypothermic body shutdown.
At Long Lake in Belgrade, two young men had a close shave when their snowsled broke through the ice at a stream outlet on the pond. Like the Southwest Harbor threesome, the two Belgrade men almost drowned, but managed to swim to shore and get help. At press time they were hospitalized and in stable condition.
Lakes and ponds aren’t the only unsafe places for unsuspecting snowmobilers. In Denmark, a man and his daughter got in trouble on a snowmobile trail when their sled broke into icy water on the trail! They, too, were rescued suffering from exposure.
This same day, in Sangerville, two Guilford men broke through thin ice on Manhanock Pond. Brian Gaw, 52, and Jason Goggin, 47, were operating separate snowmobiles and both struggled to get to shore when their snowmobiles became submerged. Once on shore, the men were able to phone family for help.
Even the Maine Warden Service — the folks who rescue those of us in trouble and warn us about the need to check ice thickness — experienced an encounter with thin ice. Warden Pilot Jeff Spencer was taxing a ski-equipped Cessna on Eagle Lake in Aroostook County when the aircraft broke through the ice. The veteran pilot escaped injury, but not the high-wing airplane, which was eventually recovered.
The takeaway in all of this is that, when it comes to ice safety, we should not be lulled into a false sense of security by prolonged cold spells. Early, heavy snowfalls can have an insulating, inhibiting effect on ice formation. Couple this with some winter rain and warming spells, and all bets are off.
Check ice thicknesses before you venture forth. Talk to locals who are familiar with the ice anomalies of lakes and ponds. Be especially wary of pond outlets and inlets. Moving water under ice will inhibit ice formation every time.
Snowsledders who travel a lot on bodies of water would also be wise to carry a long rescue rope aboard their sleds and some ice grippers in the pocket of their snowmobile suits.
All of the survivors of the above incidents were just plain lucky. Before this snowmobile season is over some unsuspecting sledder will break through the ice and never see the light of day again.
Don’t be one of them. Remain informed and very ice-wary. And when it comes to sledding on ice, the cliché applies: if in doubt, don’t.