| January marks a turning point for Maine sportsmen. The fun is over for bear, deer, moose, grouse, waterfowl and squirrel hunters. All that’s left is rabbit hunting (good through March 31) and predator hunting fox, bobcat and coyote. In March the crow season will open up for a few weeks and then in May we can begin chasing wild turkeys again.
If things continue as they are (weather-wise) this “winter,” we may well need to dust off the fishing regulations and find out which lakes and ponds are open to fishing, ice or not. In general, all such waters in the state may be fished from shore or boat whether ice has formed or not. The most common glitch is that it is not legal to fish open water from the ice, which is merely an attempt to save the lives of those who are foolish enough to side-step across iffy ice in order to cast a line into open water.
Oh, you mean THAT ice, that thin sheet of usually white, crumbly stuff that may hold an otter, beaver or muskrat skidding across the ice to find open water, but an angler and his gear? Not likely! Already this year anglers fishing the Great Lakes have been set adrift and stranded on chunks of ice that have broken off the main floe due to unusually warm weather. In their case it’s merely a matter of having someone come along and scoot a boat or canoe up onto the ice and rescue them, but here in Maine if the ice you are standing on breaks off you are likely to slide into the lake like a fried egg served out of a Teflon pan. It’s quick, fast and easy - and usually deadly. Few of us are adept at dog-paddling in frigid water with our winter coveralls and boots on. Can you say “Anchors away?” I have gone through the ice twice in my checkered career and found each event to be disconcerting, surprising and challenging. You get one chance to rescue yourself and then your survival is pretty much up to luck and the quick thinking of somebody else. Sadly, each year we lose fellow sportsmen who took chances, fell through the ice and had neither luck nor companions around to affect the outcome.
It’s likely that there will be a rash of drownings or near-drownings this winter. In many parts of the state there was ice a month ago, enough to stand on, but now those same areas are open water. Naturally, every time the ice forms someone is going to have to test its thickness, and that means repeated calls to the sheriff’s office because someone else has gone through and didn’t come back up.
Though it is common in the outdoor press to discuss the many and various ways a person could save themselves from a fall through thin or “rotten” ice, I’d say the wiser choice would be to stay off the ice until there is no question that it is safe for not only one person but for the other person who may well have to rescue his buddy. When the ice is thin enough both parties can lose the game, and that just ruins everybody’s day.
The real dicey part of falling through the ice is the bitter coldness of it. The water may be 33 degrees, and soaking in such a bath quickly debilitates the victim. Have you ever accidentally jumped into a cold shower? What was your immediate response, other than curling into a ball and gasping for breath? Same goes for a dip in an icy winter lake. The ice is also slippery and unstable, and cleverly designed tools such as ice picks, ropes and long poles seem rather ludicrous when you find yourself standing on the bottom in 10 feet of frigid water. The general response to being dunked in a winter pond is similar to a runaway paddle boat: Lots of thrashing and screeching but not a lot of production. I rescued myself the first time I went under the ice purely because I fully intended to kill the kid who’d poked the hole in the ice in the first place, spreading water all over the ice and causing me to break through 20 feet offshore. Fortunately, the pond was shallow with a gravel bottom, which gave me just enough friction to keep moving toward shore, although not fast enough to catch the little twit who did nothing to save me but stand there, bug-eyed, while I struggled to land. When he finally realized that my life was no longer in danger but his definitely was, he bolted. I staggered along behind him in my frozen clothes for a few yards, and then hopped on my bike for one of the coldest rides home I’d ever experienced.
After much consideration I decided that rather than learn fun ways to get back to shore after falling through the ice, I’d be much better off if I just didn’t go onto thin ice in the first place!
Other than that one January ride onto Schoodic Lake in my old Jeep pick-up truck back in the 1970s, I’ve stuck to logic and sensibility when it comes to being on the ice in winter. Rather than waste time measuring the ice or chancing that it might be thick enough, I just stay off it! There are others more adventurous than I who have no qualms about rushing onto the ice without testing it first, but those of us who make mistakes and then live to have qualms usually feel justified in bowing to them.
Bottom line, of course, is to err on the side of caution when it comes to winter sports that involve traveling over frozen water, either on foot, in vehicles or while wearing snowshoes or skis. Test ice thoroughly before venturing onto it and if there is open water anywhere nearby, do the prudent thing and get away from it. Ice does not form evenly or uniformly, and all it takes is one thin spot to turn your day (literally) upside down.
Regardless of the number of warnings being issued this winter someone is going to take a fatal nosedive through thin ice this winter. Don’t let it be you!