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Enjoy Sebago Lake's Ice, But Do So Safely!

February 9, 2004

A sure sign that winter has arrived in Maine is when Sebago Lake freezes over and a new world of ice dramatically appears to play on. In the last few days, however, several ice fishermen have fallen through the ice and they have learned first hand how weak spots can appear anywhere on the lake. Luckily they all got out safely and lived to tell about it, but results could easily have been tragic.

Mount Washington looms over a frozen Sebago Lake with an ice ridge in the foreground

Sebago is a big lake and is temperamental, both in summer and in winter. Everyone who ventures out on her frozen surface needs to remember that and be careful. Sebago's winds, temperature fluctuations, and ice movements create pressure ridges and weak spots in the ice that wait to entrap the unwary sportsman.

I spoke with one of these lucky individuals who survived a fall through the ice. He has grown up on Sebago Lake and has seen all its faces and moods. From his own first-hand knowledge as well as the stories from others he knows about the joys and dangers of Sebago Lake's winter ice. This is no stranger to Sebago Lake.

He was out on the lake ice fishing about a week ago. The ice was a comfortable eight inches thick as he set his tip-ups. As he approached a pressure ridge that had built up, he was particularly careful to check the ice thickness. He knows how tricky pressure ridges can be.

Pressure ridges form on Sebago Lake
and can be areas of weak ice

Pressure ridges are common on big lakes like Sebago. They are caused by the thermal expansion of the ice when the sun warms the ice during the day. As the edges of the ice press against the shore internal stresses in the ice sheet build until it fails, cracks, and buckles. Two sheets of ice push together to form a pressure ridge where the ice breaks and tilts. Sometimes one sheet will ride over the other causing ice to pile up. Wind blowing over the surface of the ice can cause further movement and piling of ice blocks. Wind can close open water or cause open areas to grow. These pressure ridges are weak points in the ice, and ice is often thinner there. Ice thickness can vary greatly from spot to spot, and often those spots are within a very short distance of each other. Open water can also be created at pressure ridges.

With eight inches of ice the ice fisherman was able to cross the pressure ridge without any problems, and he continued setting his line of tipups. When he went to return to his first tipups he didn't follow his outgoing route, but was about twenty yards off to the side. He reached the pressure ridge and saw that another smaller pressure ridge had been formed branching off the main fracture. It didn't look quite right, and as he decided that he would back off and go back to his original track, the ice gave way under him.

He immediately threw himself spread-eagled on the ice to distribute his weight as widely as possible. Often that will buy enough time to crawl onto firmer ice without going into the water. This time it didn't work. The block of ice sank beneath him and he found himself up to his neck in frigid Sebago Lake waters. The lake is sixty-five feet deep where he went in.

Sebago Rescue EMT Bill Poor practices
using ice picks to pull himself out of the lake
in a Fire Department ice rescue drill

He swam to the edge of the open water where there was thick ice that would support his weight. Normally he would have a set of ice picks on a lanyard around his neck, but had left them behind on this trip. With water hovering around freezing, he knew that he had only minutes before hypothermia set in and his mind and body became numbed and he slipped below the surface of the icy water.

When I talked with him he said, "The air temperature was about 8o F, but the water felt even colder. The ice was as smooth as glass. I stretched my arms out on the ice but couldn't get a purchase. Luckily my mittens and the arms of my shirt started freezing to the ice, and when I kicked my legs I was able to hoist myself up on the ice as far as my chest. Once I got my torso out of the water I was able to lift the rest of my body up onto the ice. I rolled away from the open water, and luckily the ice held my weight. I think it was a good eight inches or more there, and the only weak spot was at the pressure ridge."

Our fisherman was now out on the ice, in soaking wet clothes, with 1 mile to walk across the ice in sub-freezing temperatures to safety. Thankfully he is in pretty good physical shape and made it back home with no further incident other than arriving sheathed in ice. Another person, with less upper body strength and stamina, could easily have died in the lake, or could have succumbed to hypothermia with wet clothes in the cold.

* * * *

Every year several people go through the ice on Sebago Lake. And every year the Sebago Fire Department trains so that they can respond and rescue. On Sunday the fire department practiced cold water and ice rescue techniques at Nason's Beach in North Sebago. Nason's Beach is private property and Billy Nason graciously let the fire department use it for this drill. The fire department appreciates his valuable contribution to the Town's public safety. On Saturday, the day before the drill, a work crew cut a 16x20 foot hole through the 12-inch-thick ice for the drill, and then enclosed it in snow fence to keep the curious and careless away from the hazard.

Before they fell through!
Sebago Fire Department Lt. Jason Schoolcraft
and Sebago Rescue EMT Anita Chadbourne
on 1 inch of new ice during the training drill

After the ice broke and they fell through!

On Sunday, fire fighters donned red cold-water survival and rescue suits and practiced different rescue techniques. Lt. Jason Schoolcraft instructed the fire fighters in self-rescue so that they could save themselves when they go through the ice. Fire fighters used ice picks and frog kicks to get out of the water onto the ice.

Sebago Rescue EMT Bill Poor practices
rescuing Sebago Fire Fighter Paul Field
from Sebago Lake's frigid waters

Jason's advice to anyone who goes through the ice is "Don't panic, but act fast. Swim to the edge of the good ice, put your forearms on the ice, get your body near horizontal and use your ice picks to get a purchase on the ice. Ice picks are no more than spikes protruding from wooden hand holds - you can make them at home with a dowel and two nails. With a grip on the ice with your picks, then with powerful frog kicks you can push yourself out. You should lift with your arms, but only straight up. This will help you get over the ice edge as you kick."

He continued, "If you don't have ice picks, you can still kick your way out of the water. Don't try to pull yourself out with your arms without ice picks - you will just slide off. The idea is to keep yourself low and use the frog kick to push yourself onto the ice. Once out, get to shore or help quickly and out of your wet clothing as soon as possible."

Sebago Rescue EMT Bill Poor practices
rescuing Sebago Fire Fighter Paul Field
using Standish Fire Department's
"banana" rescue boat

The objective of any ice rescue is to remove the victim from the water, as quickly as possible, without endangering the lives of the rescuers. The Sebago Fire Department then practiced various rescue techniques, including rescue rope drills, line throwing, and pulling "victims" and rescuers from the water.

EMTs Bill Poor and Anita Chadbourne from Sebago Rescue were on scene to keep a careful eye on those drilling for signs of hypothermia, but ended up donning suits and jumping in the water with the rest of the crew. They were able to experience first hand what it is like to be a "victim" and rescuer. Anita was even lucky enough to draw the survival suit with the leak in it, for a truly refreshing experience!

Fire Fighter Bruce Knowlton brought Standish Fire Department's "banana" rescue boat to the drill, and fire fighters practiced working with it.

* * * *

Sebago Lake now has more than a foot of ice in places and icehouses dot the lake over likely fishing spots. The lake was full of iceboats racing over the crystal clear ice last week before two snowstorms covered the ice. The newly fallen snow on the ice is criss-crossed with snow machine and ATV tracks, and there are even a few trucks and cars out on the ice.

The 4th Annual Sebago Lake Ice Fishing Tournament is coming up in another couple of weeks, on February 21 and 22, 2004. The ice will be crowded with fishermen and on-lookers for the event. The Sebago Fire Department and Sebago Rescue urge everyone to be aware of temperamental Sebago Lake and be cautious out on the ice. Have fun, and return home safely!

Here are some tips for enjoying Sebago Lake in the wintertime.

  • Be cautious in crossing or coming near to pressure ridges. Be suspicious of gray, dark or porous spots in the ice as these may be soft areas. Ice is generally strongest where it is hard and blue. Ice that is safe today may not be tomorrow, and even a safe crossing point you made in the morning over a pressure ridge may not be safe at noon.
  • Carry a pair of ice picks to help pull your way out if you should fall in.
  • Should you break through the ice, try not to panic. Remember to turn toward the direction you came from - toward the ice that supported you. Use the picks to gain a hold on the unbroken surface of the ice, and advance by kicking your feet.
  • Once you are out of the water and are lying on the ice, don't stand! Roll away from the point where you broke through until you are on solid ice.
  • If you do see someone fall through the ice, do not run toward them. Carefully extend a rope, ladder, pole or line to the victim.
  • Get the victim to a warm place as soon as possible. Concentrate on warming the torso, not the extremities. If a victim is having difficulty walking, talking or has a noticeable pallor or weak pulse in his extremities, call 911 and have them dispatch Sebago Rescue and Fire Department.

Useful Information about Safety on the Ice and Ice Rescue

Dill, Bob. Self-Rescue Technique
Harbor Watch. Ice Fishing Safety Tips
Ice Fishing Safety
Krack, Larry. Ice Rescue/Floating Hose. Firehouse Magazine, January, 1992, Pg 37
Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. ICE FISHING REGULATIONS
Massachusetts Public Safety Divers Association. Ice Rescue
Michigan DNR. Ice Fishing Safety
Smith Jr., Ken. Big Fresh Water Ice. December 1987 - edited November 11, 2003
U.S. Army Cold Regions Research & Engineering Laboratory. Safety on Floating Ice Sheets. Hanover, New Hampshire

[Note - This article was published in the Bridgton News on February 12, 2004]

Allen Crabtree

Last updated February 28, 2004

Copyright © 2004, Allen Crabtree