Coast Guard warns ice-sport enthusiasts of weakened ice near open shipping lanes

Rear Adm. Peter V. Neffenger uses ice picks to assist him as he pulls himself out of the water as part of ice rescue training at the Ice Capabilities Center of Excellence at Coast Guard Station Saginaw River, Mich. US Coast Guard Photo by Seamen Jason Kellogg.

USCG File Photo

SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. – The Coast Guard is noticing a developing trend on Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, the St. Mary’s River and other waterways as ice-sport enthusiasts are putting themselves in danger by taking advantage of early and rapid freezing despite active shipping occurring on frozen and partially frozen waterways.

“We recognize people are going to venture out onto the ice, but they need to keep in mind we still have three weeks left in the shipping season, and recreational users of the ice are unknowingly risking their lives by traveling through or near open shipping lanes with broken or weakened ice,” said Mark Gill, director of vessel traffic services for Coast Guard Sector Sault Ste. Marie.

Just last week, Coast Guard units on Lake Michigan responded to an incident when snowmobilers fell through weak ice. Although not linked to an active shipping channel, the case highlights the risk people take when they venture out onto weak ice. In Duluth Harbor, Coast Guard ice breakers have witnessed people in close proximity to tracks they cut in the ice to facilitate ship movements.

“Snowmobilers, ice fishermen and other recreational users of the ice should always be aware of shipping channel locations and stay well clear of them,” Gill said.

Most of the shipping ports on the Great Lakes don’t close to commercial traffic until Jan. 20, 2011. Vessels traveling through frozen waterways break and weaken the surrounding ice, making it extremely dangerous for people to be on.

Coast Guard responders are also concerned about the warmer air temperatures and rain forecast for this coming weekend.

“Rain is like acid on ice and really accelerates the melting process,” said Gill.

Coast Guard personnel understand that winter recreation on the ice around the Great Lakes is a tradition, but encourage people to recreate safely and improve their chances for rescue and survival in the event that something goes wrong.

Gill said one of the most important things ice-sport enthusiasts can do before going out onto any ice is to tell friends or family members their plans, including where they will be and what time they will return.

The following are additional safety measures anyone who ventures out onto the ice should always adhere to:
Use the buddy system: NEVER go out on the ice alone.
Dress in bright colors, and wear an anti-exposure suit that is waterproof, including a personal flotation device. A PFD allows a person to float with a minimum amount of energy expended and allows the person to assume the heat escape lessening position (H.E.L.P.) – bringing the knees close to the chest and holding them in place by wrapping the arms around the shin portions of the legs.
Carry two ice picks or screwdrivers for self-rescue. They are much more effective than using your hands.
Carry a whistle or noise-making device to alert people that you are in distress.
Don’t rely on cellular phones to communicate distress; VHF-FM radios are much more reliable.
Stay away from cracks, seams, pressure ridges and slushy areas, which signify thinner ice.

Click here for more ice-safety tips from the Coast Guard.

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