Winter may be in full swing, which, for Manitobans, means a lot of outdoor activities, but according to the Lifesaving Society Manitoba, the province’s fluctuating weather this season means it’s important to be cautious when venturing onto frozen bodies of water.
“The Red (River), because it’s a fast-flowing river, relatively deep … you can end up with open water even with really, really cold conditions — and our temperatures have been so mild,” the society’s Christopher Love said.
“Ice has formed everywhere in the province, but it’s still going to be unpredictable in places, because we’ve had these weird — for us — ice formation conditions and cold conditions over the last month and a half.”
Love said his advice under these conditions is to stick to activities like skating or skiing on ice that is regularly monitored for thickness — such as the river trail at the Forks or some City of Winnipeg parks.
“Ice can become incredibly unpredictable, and what was theoretically thick enough to support your weight one day might be thin the next, or a couple of days later.”
Love said he’s heard reports throughout the winter already of ice cracks forming, trucks getting stuck, and people almost falling through thin ice while participating in winter activities, including ice fishing and snowmobiling.
“That just goes to show ice is never 100 per cent safe, never 100 per cent predictable, so every time you go out, you have to think about safety.
“If you’re going into an area that is not going to be monitored, that responsibility is going to fall to you. ”
Love said there are a few essential items outdoorspeople should pack before heading out for activities like ice fishing or snowmobiling on a frozen body of water.
First and foremost: a throw bag.
“It’s essentially a bag full of rope — a great safety tool if you’re going out on the ice for those recreational activities,” Love said.
“If somebody falls through the ice, one of the worst things you can do is rush right up to help them. They’ve fallen through the ice … if you get too close, you’re going to go through that ice too, and then we’ll have two people in trouble.”
A throw bag, Love said, is a concentrated bag full of rope — about 16 metres of it — with a weight in the bottom for easy throwing, and a handle so the person you’re tossing it to can get a good grip.
“It adds that layer of safety and security if someone’s going out there, so you can help them without putting yourself at risk,” he said.
“You’ve got your throw bag, you’ve got your rope — you (also) need something that’s going to float, either a flotation snowmobile suit or a life-jacket over top of your winter clothing.”
Items like a whistle to call for help, ice picks to give yourself grip on the slippery surface, and a personal safety kit — with the necessities to start a fire and communicate with others — are also recommended.
If you do fall through the ice, University of Manitoba physiologist Gordon Giesbrecht says the first phase of your body entering the cold water is the most dangerous.
“The first one is the one that’s most likely to kill you,” Giesbrecht — also known as ‘Professor Popsicle’ — told Global News.
“That’s the cold shock response. When your skin gets really cold, it causes you to gasp and hyperventilate. When you’re doing that, the fact that you’re feeling lousy and very cold gets amplified because your breathing is out of control.
“It all leads to panic unless you can force yourself to relax and take deep breaths.”
As Giesbrecht admitted, that’s easier said than done, but if you are able to calm yourself down, your next challenge is something called the “one-10-one” principle.
“You’ve got one minute to get your breathing under control, 10 minutes of meaningful movement, and an hour before you become unconscious due to hypothermia — so the deal is you’ve got to survive that first minute.”
To safely get yourself out of a hole in the ice, he said, you don’t want to push yourself out — instead, kick your feet so your body is horizontal and parallel with the top of the ice, then pull yourself along the ice.
“Two words — kick and pull,” he said.
“Once you get up, don’t stand up right away — crawl away from the hole and then try standing up and moving on.”