Safety first in skating on natural ice

Want to try it? You’ll need to dress warmly - all over. Make a bonfire and roast some wieners and marshmallows, and you’ll want a jug of hot chocolate. It’s handy to have a stool to sit on when putting skates on and taking them off.

And you’ll be smart to take a long rope and a referee’s whistle.

Rope? Whistle? Yes, for the same reason lifeguards use ropes and whistles. As with swimming, one person should be the overall "boss" or lifeguard when groups skate over the natural ice of ponds, creeks, rivers and lakes. That boss should first be sure the ice is at least 4 inches thick and should alert skaters to dangerous spots where geese swim to keep an open hole for feeding and drinking, or where horses and cattle drink.

Other trouble spots might be where spring water comes out under the ice it’s warmer, you know and places in a flowing stream where the ice is nonexistent or only flaky thick. There is also rotten ice. Melting ice can break up even when its more than 6 inches thick.

Missouri is a state that teases skaters: zero cold today, thawing tomorrow, freezing again tomorrow night. It takes experience to determine just when the ice is safe. In northern states, it stays cold for weeks or months at a time. In the South, there’s not enough natural ice to warrant owning skates. But in the middle states, such as Missouri, the dangers are different.

Wherever you live, be prepared for safety. The best way to ensure this is to skate over shallow water.

The person in charge can determine this by chopping holes or by studying the way a pond or lake is built - the dam usually holds back the deeper water.

On the opposite side, there’s often a sloping "beach" and a strip along the shoreline where the water is shallow beneath the ice. Wet feet and legs are no fun, but they’re not life-threatening.

The boss can mark off the shallowest areas. A blast of the whistle will call back anyone who gets out too far. And what if there’s the threat of a real emergency? The whistle blows three loud blasts, and the skaters go down on the ice and roll or scoot toward the shore.

Why roll or scoot? When the skater is bearing all of his weight on two tiny blades, the ice is more likely to give way. When that same body weight is distributed over a wide area of ice, it’s more likely to support the weight. Scooting, back down, a skater can move faster than by rolling. Dig the heels of the skates into the ice and head toward shore.

Make a game out of self-rescue. The whistle-blower can explain and demonstrate rolling and scooting; the skaters will likely want to have the whistle blown unexpectedly for practice. Three deliberate blasts of the whistle mean that the danger is real.

It’s also fun to practice coiling a long rope, as lifeguards do, and slinging the loose end out to a skater who pretends to be in the icy water. It’s fun to pull and be pulled to safety. Finally, before going out on the ice, take the spare wheel out of the car and place it on the dock or shore. Yes, this heavy thing - air in a tire that’s on a wheel - will float and is effective in both swimming and ice accident rescues.

Click here to return to the index
Copyright © 1994-2010 Sue Gerard. All Rights Reserved. No text or images on this website may be reproduced in any form without written permission of the author, except small quotations to be used in reviews.