Spotlight Wellness

Lake ice not quite safe yet

| Tom Driscoll |

Bicycling on a safely frozen pond | Photo: Tom Driscoll

I enjoy riding my old steel mountain bike on lakes and ponds in the winter – with studded snow tires and a helmet – but only when the ice is certain to be safe.

So, on Sunday January 10th I drove over to Sabbathday Lake to check the ice and decide: to ride or not to ride.  I decided not to ride yet, as the ice was only about 3 inches thick in some places and there were unusually large areas of open water.  Two inches of ice is considered safe for one person on foot.

I make my own decisions for myself, and I will not tell you what to do.  Each of us have our own risk equations.  But I would like to share my thoughts.

As a former Army medevac helicopter pilot married to an Emergency Room nurse, we have been involved with the consequences of various unintended events over several decades.  From that vantage point, everything that is seemingly unlikely to occur for you or me, will happen to someone eventually.

What I did see Sunday on Sabbathday was a local family walking and ice fishing on a relatively safe portion near the north shoreline.  That seemed reasonable.  We had a nice chat in the sun at socially and ice-safe distancing.

Westerly, a small party of ice-skaters followed the shore from The Outlet to the Shaker shoreline and set up for nearshore ice-fishing.  That seemed reasonable.

I was then surprised to see one of the skaters venture out across the middle of the lake where I know it to be 65 feet deep.  The ice was likely not much thicker than the three inches along the north shoreline; but I did not verify my mid-lake estimate, of course.  That skating trip seemed imprudent by my standards.

Southward at a distance it appeared that about a third of the lake surface was not frozen at all, which would be nice for boating or swimming if only it were summer.

Years ago, a man on a snowmobile rode across Sebago Lake on the ice, at night, but upon encountering unexpected open water he squeezed to full throttle and took a most memorable ride, waterskiing for more than one mile, alone in the dark.  Fortunately, he arrived back upon solid ice once again and survived.

Earlier in life, Army Ranger and military Flight Training infused me with a lifelong safety and risk management mindset.  Every time I jumped from an aircraft, I planned for my parachute to fail.  Every time I flew over Baghdad, I planned on being shot down.  I did not wish for any of these events to occur; but I was taught to always be prepared – just in case.

Every time I my venture out on the ice, I plan on falling through even though it is unlikely to happen.  Riding a bicycle on a frozen lake is inherently dangerous, as are many outdoor activities.  But the risk can be mitigated by riding only when the ice thickness is certainly safe and by remaining close to shore in shallow waters – just in case.

In my younger years I jumped into the lake on the day of “ice-out,” an annual event, usually in April or May.  Such water is shockingly and unbearably cold and it always felt like a heart attack at the moment of submersion.  At my request, my ER nurse wife Kathy would observe from the shoreline – just in case.

I have since abandoned that youthful tradition and I cannot explain why I thought it was a good idea at the time.

Last winter on a warm and sunny day I was bicycling on Sabbathday and came upon a woman out for a walk on the ice.  She was carrying “ice-awls” which dangled from her coat sleeves, and she told me that her brother once fell through the ice and fortunately survived. While scratching his way back onto the frozen surface, his first thought was that he wished he had carried some ice-awls.  She now carries ice-awls ever since that event – just in case.

With that convincing testimony, this year I added ice-awls to my bicycle safety kit.  They are also good to have while doing the more traditional ice-fishing, skating, skiing, or walking on any frozen body of water.  My awls have a cover over the pick to prevent getting jabbed when not in use.  When you hold them in your hands and stab onto an ice surface, the shields then retract, and the picks provide a firm grip on the slick ice surface.

“Ice-awls” with retractable pick guards | Photo: Tom Driscoll

Get outdoors, and often, and have fun!

And think safety – just in case.

— Maine Game Wardens Ice Safety page here.