Ice Survival: Stay Alive When Everything Goes Wrong

Each year on average, several people in Indiana fall through thin ice and drown after becoming unconscious in the frigid water. Most recently, two teenagers died while ice fishing on January 18 in an Owen County quarry.

Always remember the number one rule that professional rescuers use: “No ice is safe ice”. Even a strongly frozen lake can have thin or weak spots due to springs, water level fluctuations, current, inflow from drainage pipes or other factors. Never completely trust the ice.

Before venturing out, examine the ice. While most ice is white on top, there should be a layer of hard, crystal-clear ice somewhere underneath. This is the layer that should be measured when considering the thickness of the ice. Four inches of clear, hard ice is usually considered the minimum for a lone angler.

If you suddenly find yourself in the water, there are a few things you can do to survive. First, while most anglers don’t wear them, PFD’s provide a great deal of warmth while fishing and will help save your life in an ice accident.

While in the water, concentrate on remaining calm and staying at the surface. Bulky clothing will help you float, as will catching air underneath a parka. Panicking will only tire you out quicker and your thrashing will help purge your clothing of air, causing you to sink.

Do your best to stay horizontal at the lip of the ice. Prudent fishermen carry “claws” or icepicks that remain in a sheath around the neck and are used to pull oneself onto the ice during an emergency. A sheath knife, fishing pole or even fingernails can be used, though not as effectively.

Once stable in the water, try to kick and then push yourself onto the ice with your legs, while pulling with hands. As you leave the water, roll away from the hole onto thicker ice. This ‘kick, push, pull, roll’ sequence should be accomplished in one rapid but fluid motion until successful.

Quickly rolling will also save you if the ice starts to break but you haven’t yet submerged. Lying down distributes your weight, preventing further ice breakage while rolling moves you quickly out of the area.

Aside from ice fishermen, many ice rescues involve people who were trying to save their dogs or other animals that were trapped in the ice. Dogs retrieving thrown sticks are a common cause of drowning as panicked owners irrationally try to creep out across the ice to help their pet. Sadly, dogs will often self-rescue while the owners perish; dogs are certainly important but not worth dying over.

Rescue of anyone fallen through the ice is best accomplished with a rope thrown to the victim or some type of long pole. Trying to personally reach the victim or making a human chain across the ice will most often result in multiple victims.