Jan 10, 2016

Safety On The Hard Water

By: Adam Walton

As ice takes hold on waters to the north, anglers are venturing onto the hard water.  Although many anglers look forward to this season, some forget about the inherent danger associated with it.  Unfortunately, every year numerous anglers fall through the ice and all too often, some tragically parish.  Before heading out, knowing a few simple precautions and understanding basic survival skills may make the difference between life and death. 

Let’s first discuss the effects of cold water shock to the human body.  When a person first falls through the ice, the body’s initial reaction to abrupt cold water immersion is to gasp.  The cold water shock will literally suck the breath out of your lungs, causing many people to panic and inhale water.  This factor alone causes many drowning deaths, compared to hypothermia which is discussed later.  Understanding that gasping and losing your breath is a short term normal response, keeping calm and treading water the first minute after falling in should be your only priority. (Figure 1) Attempting to escape the water while unable to control your breathing is difficult and dangerous.  After a short time, your body will become accustomed to the cold water and your breathing will return to normal.  Once your breathing is controlled, focus on quickly getting out.  First, get your bearings and try to locate the tracks you left prior to falling through.  This points you in the general direction of safe ice, since it was able to hold your weight before falling through.  After you have quickly located the direction of escape, prop your body onto the ice and kick hard while pulling yourself up.  If ice breaks off, push away broken pieces and continue going until solid ice is found.  Once your entire body is onto solid ice, roll safely away from the hole.  Rolling away disperses your weight and helps to not fall through again.  If you carry ice picks, use them to pull yourself onto safe ice.  Ice picks are inexpensive and make a huge difference when attempting to pull your body onto safe ice. (Figure 2) Although it may seem insane, once out of the water, remove as much heavy wet clothing as possible and head towards help.  Since cold wet clothing pulls away body heat much faster than cold air, removing items will help you get warmer compared to keeping them on.

Along with drowning, hypothermia is a secondary, but just as important threat.  If you are unable to get out of the water, or if you do get out but are far away from help, hypothermia will quickly set in and may cause death.  The first stage of hypothermia is body shivers.  As time passes, numbness will begin to set in eventually making it difficult or impossible to control your body movements.  Continued cold exposure will lead to advanced stages of hypothermia, which include altered mental status and poor decision making.  If no help is found, unconsciousness will eventually occur, which can lead to death.  Both the water and air temperature will affect how quickly these stages occur, but generally speaking, the human body has roughly 10 minutes of purposeful movement before hypothermia begins to set in and 1 hour before unconsciousness occurs.  After this time frame passes, it becomes very difficult to rescue victims. 

If you are able to rescue someone, be aware of the advanced stages of hypothermia. It is important to rewarm a victim, but do so slowly.  Rapid rewarming, like submersion into a hot bath, can cause a victim of advanced hypothermia to go into cardiac arrest.  Never hesitate to call your emergency response number if you see someone in distress, even if you are able to rescue the victim.  Advanced care is usually necessary even after the subject is pulled from the water.

One can see the importance of traveling with a fishing partner and letting others know your location prior to heading out.  If alone, self rescue can be very difficult and hypothermia effects can take hold before you reach help.  Some other things to think about are wearing equipment such as ice picks or a life jacket and carrying items such as a throw rope, extra gloves/stocking hats, flares, etc… which all can help in emergency situations.  Please be safe this season and plan accordingly.  Ice fishing is a blast, but understanding the dangers that go with it and how to handle them may save your life!