When Raymond fire chief Brian Tupper went to his Washington County camp for a winter weekend getaway years ago, he planned to rest, relax and ice fish. He did not plan to fall through a spring hole in an unfamiliar 20-acre pond. But when it happened, his first responder training kicked into high gear.

First, Tupper executed a few hard dolphin kicks to get his chest onto the ice shelf. Next, he pulled more of his body onto the solid ice, rolled away from the ice hole, then slowly stood up and walked toward his truck. There he changed his clothes, blasted the heater and had nearby friends help drive him back to camp.

Tupper considers himself lucky. He spent just 30 seconds in the frigid water and reached his truck within minutes. But the ordeal felt like hours. “A lot of time people panic because the cold hurts,” Tupper said, “but you only have minutes.”

Knowing the right actions to take after you, or someone else, falls through the ice can mean the difference between life and death.

“Ice is very dynamic. What’s safe today may not be safe tomorrow. But you can survive if you know what to do,” said South Portland fire fighter and wilderness paramedic Ben Guild. “You have about five minutes of usable time to self-rescue. Then you start losing your motor skills.”

We asked wilderness experts to share their tips for staying safe on the state’s frozen lakes and ponds and, failing that, for how to execute a rescue.

A closeup of the sharp point of a hand pick. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Essential gear

Safety starts before you go outside. Dressing properly for cold-weather adventures is critical, Guild said. Wear wool or synthetic clothing that dries quickly, not cotton, and carry a change of clothes in your vehicle.

Also carry three pieces of essential gear: a small ice drill to check the depth of the ice, an ice pick and a long rope. If you fall in, reach up onto the ice, stick the pick into it, then use it to haul yourself out. If someone else falls in, throw her the rope.

Safety tips

Don’t travel alone. Tell someone where you’re going and how long you expect to stay.

Ice is thinner over running water, as here near the dam at Hinckley Pond in South Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Know the body of water where you are recreating, including the location of inlets or springs that feed into it. Avoid these as ice is thinner above running water.

Check the thickness of the ice yourself. Don’t rely on a change in the weather —  a string of cold nights, for example — or a second-hand report indicating conditions are safe. Six inches of ice will support 4,000 pounds, roughly the weight of one person and one snowmobile, said Matt LaRoche, superintendent of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. The thicker the ice, the more weight it can support.

Take stock of your surroundings. Several years ago, arriving for an ice-fishing trip, LaRoche made a mental note of a ladder outside his North Woods camp. Some time later, when his dog Maverick fell through the ice, LaRoche was ready. He grabbed the ladder; his nephew held one end on safe ice while LaRoche slowly walked across it to the ice hole, and grasped Maverick’s collar.

“It didn’t go exactly as planned,” LaRoche said. “The ice started to break under the ladder. We only had a few seconds to get out of there.”

After a good warm-up at camp, Maverick was fine.

Rescue techniques

Guild wears a cold water rescue suit when executing rescues, but people who go through the ice while ice fishing or skating won’t have the benefit of this gear. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

First, some good news: unless you fall into the strong current of a river, it’s unlikely you will get trapped under the ice, the experts say.

If you see that a friend or stranger has gone through the ice, a decision to help them must be made within seconds. The safest step may be to call 911. If you have a long rope (see Essential gear) Guild recommends making a loop at one end, then throwing the loop around the victim, whose limbs may be too cold to grasp a rope.

To save yourself from a potentially deadly plunge, LaRoche suggests you react even before you hit the water. Bend your waist to form your body into an L-shape, then can catch your upper body on the ice shelf. While not foolproof, the technique has worked for him on the two occasions he fell through the ice.

When Guild’s snowmobile went through Rangeley Lake in 2011, he kept his head. He swam to the last point he’d traveled on the ice (the spot where he knew the ice was solid), splashed the ice shelf with water, then stuck out his arms, letting his jacket to freeze to the wet ice. Next, like Tupper, he kicked to get his body horizontal, pulled himself partway onto the ice, rolled away from the open water, crawled to thicker ice, and finally stood up and walked to a nearby camp he knew was occupied.

If you fall into a hole in the ice with a friend, rescue yourself first so that you can of greater service to the other victim, Tupper says. If a small child falls in with you, however, boost the child up onto the ice, rescuing them first if you can.

You’re on land. Now what?

All rescues come in two parts: First, get out. Next, get warm, before hypothermia sets in.

“It happens in slow motion in your mind. Then you get yourself out and you think, ‘This is great,'” LaRoche said. “‘But now I’m all wet. And it’s winter.’”

Guild suggests that once victims get to safety, they strip down, dry off, and wrap themselves in a wool blanket. He cautions that if a victim is only semi-responsive after he is pulled from the water, warm him up slowly, or there’s a risk of shock or even heart attack.


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