Officials warn Summit County residents about dangers of thin ice |

Officials warn Summit County residents about dangers of thin ice

Lloyd and Marguerite Miller go ice-skating Wednesday with their dog, Joe, at North Pond Park in Silverthorne. Officials urge residents to be very cautious when trying to walk out on to the early winte rice this season.
Eli Pace /

Ice is starting to creep over ponds and lakes across Summit. The temptation to break out the blades, shoot a puck around or punch a hole and drop a line is strong. But public safety officials are asking residents to take serious precautions before stepping out on to the glassy frozen stuff. In fact, the Summit County Rescue Group recommends going by a good rule of thumb when even close to doubt: No ice is safe ice.

Early winter has a lot of people excited of all the possibilities it brings to our mountain playground. Aside from shredding on the slopes or traversing the tundra, when it gets cold enough there’s also a grand range of ice activities to feast on — skating, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, fishing, kiting and hockey.

But the potential for tragedy is high enough that rescue officials are hoping people stick to “safer than sorry.” Sergeant Mark Watson of the Summit County Sheriff’s Office’s Special Operations Team assists the Summit County Water Rescue Team with ice water rescues. He said that the beginning and end of winter are the most hazardous times to be out on the ice.

“The fall and spring are the most dangerous times of the year to be out on ice, as the ice is either just starting to ice over or starting to melt,” Watson said. “Regardless of season, go by the general principle that no ice is safe ice, and get educated before going out on to it.”

If you must go out on to the ice, learn what to look for. If you can’t see through the ice, it’s a problem. Extra caution should be taken if there’s snow on top of the ice, as it both adds weight and makes it hard to see if there are cracks or if the ice is too thin.

“A good rule of thumb for ice is it really needs to be greater than 4 inches thick before you should be walking on it,” Waton said. “An example of good ice is if it is blue and clear; nice, clean ice. If it looks sort of slushy or milky white or wet, or obviously if there’s cracks in it, stay away off that.”

Watson also said to be especially careful to stay off ice connected to trees or rocks, as there is a tendency for ice to crack near objects popping out of the surface. To be absolutely sure about ice sickness, he recommends bringing a drill or an ice chisel to gouge into the ice and see how thick it is before hitting water.

Watson said that that those most at risk of falling in are ice fishermen who frequent Lake Dillon and the Green Mountain Reservoir, as well as children without supervision. However, he said the most frequent ice rescue calls his office gets involve animals — particularly dogs that run out on to the ice without a clue as to how thin the line is between their paws and deadly, cold water.

Watson asks their human companions to use the strictest vigilance when bringing pets out near ice, preferably not bringing them near ice at all. Watson also warns to avoid trying to get close to wildlife near ice, as they might get skittish and run on to it.

The main health danger from falling through ice is, of course, hypothermia. Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when body temperature starts dropping faster than it can warm up. The condition can set within minutes of exposure and the loss of a mere 3 degrees of body heat.

To save itself, the body goes into shock and reroutes all heat to internal vital organs — the heart, lungs, and brain. The first reaction when the head breaches water is to gasp — a reaction called the “mammalian diving reflex.” A switch flips, telling the body it is underwater and needs to get as much air as possible to optimize oxygen absorption.

The freezing cold causes gradual loss of fine motor function in the limbs, sapping them of the strength and dexterity needed to climb out. Watson said that the most important thing to remember when the body starts shutting down after hitting water is to keep your head.

“Don’t panic,” Watson said. “Your brain is still working. Figure out where you are, what is going on and look toward the direction you fell in. Make your way through the opening you fell through and grab and claw your way on to the ice.”

Given the difficulty of getting out of ice-cold water on your own, Watson recommends always bringing a buddy along when going on ice. That person can stand between you and death.

“First thing the buddy should do is call 911,” Watson said. “While help is on the way, they can hopefully get a hold of a pole, a rope or a flotation device that they can throw to you. You really have to be careful, though; you don’t want your buddy to fall in as well.”

With all that said, the town of Frisco would like residents to know that the Meadow Creek Pond is now open for ice skating from dawn until 10 p.m. In a press release, the town said that the public works department is maintaining the rice by testing it for thickness — the ice is at 6 inches thick — as well as adding water to freeze over and add to the depth.

Ice fishing is not allowed in Meadow Creek Pond, as holes create instability in the ice. The town also advises skaters that they use the ice “rink” at their own risk. The rink can’t be reserved and guests must bring their own skates.

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