Tuesday, February 20, 2024
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Science & NatureStay off the ice until it's safe!

Stay off the ice until it’s safe!

Ottawa media have been reporting the tragic deaths of two teens who went through thin ice on the Rideau River at Manotick just after Christmas.

In a northern climate like ours, ice on rivers and lakes can be safe to walk or even drive on in winter — but only after long, hard freezes, which we haven’t had yet this winter. River ice can be especially treacherous even after long freezes because of currents that may still be running below apparently solid ice.

I found this out the hard way a few years ago. I headed to the Fairgrounds on a bitterly cold February day to photograph a flock of Goldeneyes in an open channel of water on the opposite bank of the Mississippi. The ice on my side seemed totally solid, so I ventured about six feet onto it, where I knew the water was at most about four feet deep.

I set up my camera on its tripod and began photographing the birds. Then I moved ahead a little — and plunged through a soft spot in the ice almost to my chest.

That’s when I discovered how immobilizing it can be to be dunked into water just above the freezing point, especially laden with boots and a heavy parka.

An emergency room doctor said in Scientific American, “When you first go into extremely cold water there is what’s called a ‘cold shock’ response. People start to hyperventilate immediately. For one to three minutes you breathe very fast and deep, uncontrollably. If you go underwater, you could swallow water and die.”

That sounds about right. I was stunned at how fast my brain seemed to just shut down. I did eventually pull myself from the water and make my way home, where I shivered for the next day or two.

My situation was, of course, not potentially fatal — the shore was a few feet away and my car a hundred yards from there. So I was fine in the end. But if I had gone through the ice a little ways further out or down the river, it could have turned out differently.

I also managed a couple of nice shots of the Goldeneyes before my polar bath, see above.

Earlier this year the Rideau Canal didn’t open for skating for the first time in its five-decade history because conditions were too mild. This winter has seen mild temperatures and more rain than snow so far. It’s not likely that any ice in our area will be safe to be on for some time, if at all.

Please be careful out there.

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