Submitted November 4, 2009

Ice has a fickle face to it

Let me start by giving everyone my website, http://ghoststalker1.tripod.com. It is my survival and outdoors site, but is lacking on a variety of survival things, as I learned brain tanning and how to put together a survival kit. So those are the main things I stress on the site besides my book, Ghost Stalker.

Anyway, my first story about a canoe trip fraught with rain and tipping over might well be paled by my next story about falling through the ice.

Entering the Alaskan Bush, February, 1984, I was lacking many skills. Being a true cheechako, a novice, was apparent in many ways to the locals. Up till then I was able to live in the wilds and forage, living off what mountain country could provide and hunting and trapping gave me when I lived in the Bitterroots and High Uintahs weeks at a time.

One story even brought me to the point of turning away from water that LOOKED pure, but was filled with a dead sheep carcass. That would have made me very sick!

But, this time I want to make something very clear: ice has a fickle face to it. If you don't know it, DON'T trust it! Even deep into winter, there are signs that I should have looked for, but didn't know.

Short of taking a course on how to "read" ice, we can start our lesson by a few "rules of thumb"!

My first time of going through ice was an afternoon while heading for a young man's birthday party. He was turning ten and I had had little hearing of the human tongue, so I took off helter-skelter, just glad to be visiting someone.

That was one of my problems, just taking off, not noticing any irregularities and paying attention to the creek. The river had been iced over since freeze-up, so it was safe...or was it?

We had already seen 30-40 below zero, so I thought so, anyway.

The creek, on the other hand, was a spring-fed creek upstream from where I lived and the water running through the creek was much warmer than the outside temperature. This made the ice thinner, melting from underneath the ice's surface.

Stepping out onto the ice surface was no real alarm, as the ice near the bank was solid and thicker than the center. My next step was the disturbing crack, the dreaded sound one fears while crossing ice. My next step was full commitment to going through the creek's ice and into the frigid water, but, thankfully, only about knee-deep and the outside temperature was about 15 degrees.

I was beating myself up all the way to the cabin for being so stupid, yes, and blind, to the "signs" I knew but chose not to notice. The situation at hand, I returned to the cabin, not even an eighth of a mile away, and pulled off my socks and pants, changed into dry clothes. This time I chose a different, more reliable route, crossing where I knew I could cross safely.

Another problem is when the ice is particularly thick, say 1-2 feet, and the pressure of the spring fed or the input of upstream feeders puts tremendous pressure upon the ice, causing the ice to crack or break and the water then flows OVER the surface. This is what is called overflow. This condition can rise to several feet sometimes and you've just stepped into a river and not onto ice. This has happened in the spring-fed swamps, too, but with less scary results.

The next time (for some of us are not too smart) was deeper into the winter. Colder weather was hitting us and then the weather warmed again to snow heavily. Notice the pattern of cold weather that is then followed by warmer weather? It allows the ice to thin and the creek (same waterway as before) is spring fed, warmer than outside air, so it melts the ice from the lower surface to the upper surface. However, I hadn't crossed in this particular area and the snow's depth was not particularly familiar to me here.

I was invited to another homesteader's cabin for a night of cards or chess. I always relish a good chess game! I decided to cross at a place downstream of this man's homestead, as a familiar place to put in my canoe if I stopped to visit. This particular spot was a bend in the creek and it was the lee side of the current wind conditions. BAD choice!

The heavy deposit of snow served as an insulator for the ice and the channel forced most of the water here, causing the melting I still knew nothing about. My snowshoes had purchase on the snow's slope, but the added weight allowed me to push the snow into the creek and I could NOT touch bottom there!

I grabbed the roots that were in the water so I would not be dragged by the current underneath the ice downstream. With the other hand, I pulled off my snowshoes and threw them to the bank. I tried yelling for my friend, whose cabin was just about a fifty yards away, but he was enjoying music, so he couldn't hear me.

I was faced with the realization that I had to get out of this situation all by myself. With a mountain of snow in front of me, I chose to come out over the good ice and pull myself up that way. Living in the wilds of Alaska, one MUST wear a sheathe knife and I always carried a scout-type knife as well.

I pulled the folder first and pulled the leather awl out. I used that to hold me into place while I pulled my larger Bowie to dig into the ice and pull myself out. I was soaked and faced near zero temps that night, but I was near a friend's cabin, thankfully. I put my snowshoes aside so they would dry, stripped to my tighty whities, and he stoked the stove to bring the temp up to about eighty in that snug cabin.

We played LOTS of chess and rummy, but as I dressed in dry clothes again, I filed away one thing...carry something to help pull you out of an icy grave. Otherwise, you might not be around to tell the story, like I am.

Ice is hard to read, but if it "candles", it is darn near rotten. If it is clear and hard, it is relatively safe, especially if thick enough to hold your weight. We won't go into crossing ice choked rivers at break-up, at least, not today. :)

Rick from Alaska

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