Jim Staricha owns Northland Towing in Isle, Minn., near Lake Mille Lacs. He specializes in recovery of vehicles that break through lake and river ice. He has personally driven vehicles through lake ice and, as a scuba diver, has been pinned under vehicles, underwater, during recoveries. Below, Staricha gives survival advice to anglers and others unfortunate enough to break through winter ice.
Q: You’ve plunged through lake and river ice and survived. What’s your advice about ice travel during an uneven early winter like this?
A: Cold weather is coming, with better ice. Until then I’d say stay off the ice. No fish is worth dying for. If you have to be in your wheel house now, tow it into your backyard and watch TV in it.
Q: What ice thickness do you need to be comfortable?
A: Every lake is different. A lot of lakes have springs, and for this reason and others ice thickness can vary a lot, even on the same lake. If it’s good ice and I’m doing a vehicle recovery, I’m comfortable with 7 inches. But that’s because it’s my job to go onto that kind of ice. I’m a fisherman, and if I were only going out to fish, no way I’d go on ice that thin. I’d wait until there were 12 to 14 inches of good ice.
Q: Some time ago you performed nighttime ice rescues and recoveries. But no more. Why not?
A: Nighttime is the worst. If you drop through ice into cold water at any time of day or night, your first reaction is to freak out. But to survive, you’ve got to control yourself. Settle down. But when it’s dark, it’s spooky. You’re going to shiver. Your muscles will lock up. You’ve got to be cool or you won’t get out.
Q: Can weak ice present itself unexpectedly even in midwinter, after it’s been cold?
A: Definitely. Two years ago, Knife Lake near Mora had a good 2 feet of ice. A guy had his fish house on it and had been to it without a problem. A couple days later, right next to his fish house, he drove onto weak ice and his pickup went to the bottom. The best we can figure is that fish schooled near that spot and weakened the ice.
Q: You dive during vehicle recoveries. Have you ever been trapped by a vehicle underwater?
A: Yes. Again, the tendency in that situation is to freak out. But you have to figure a way out. When you’re in a vehicle underwater, or under a vehicle, it’s scary.
Q: What speed should vehicles travel on ice?
A: Never over 10 miles an hour, preferably slower. Go faster and you can buckle or “roll” the ice ahead of you.
Q: Should a vehicle’s windows be down while traveling on ice?
A: Generally, yes. Especially if they’re electric. If you go through ice, electric windows won’t work. If it’s midwinter and you’re traveling slow on a dependable resort road, maybe you don’t need the windows down. But if it’s me, I’d turn the heat up and roll a window down.
Q: When a vehicle goes through, does it fall to the bottom nose first, dragged down by its heavy motor?
A: Oftentimes, yes. Unless it goes in sideways. Then it will go down sideways. Every situation is different. Years ago, we drove vehicles into holes in the ice to see what happens and to practice recoveries. But the DNR now wants us to take the engines and the oil out. It’s not worth it.
Q: How valuable is a windshield-breaking tool to have in a vehicle?
A: It’s critical. They only cost about $5 and they can save your life. Most also have a sharp edge that can cut a seat belt. People don’t realize how difficult it can be to depress a seat-belt button under water. And if you think you’re going to punch out a window, or kick it out, forget it. But with that tool you can break the window. Also, keep it on the dash where you can get to it. Not tucked away in a glove compartment.
Q: How about carrying ice spikes to pull yourself onto good ice if you’ve gone in?
A: Again, very important.
Q: Will vehicles float before they sink?
A: Yes, sometimes. Again, every situation is different. Some vehicles will float eight or 10 minutes. Others, especially older vehicles, might sink right away.
Q: What’s important to remember if you exit a vehicle while it’s floating?
A: Most good ice will be alongside you or behind you. If you can get on top of the vehicle and jump, do it in one of those directions. I put a CJ-5 Jeep through Mille Lacs once and was able to get onto the hood and jump before it sunk. But I had an advantage because the top was open, with no roof.
Q: If you feel your vehicle going through, what should you do first?
A: If you have time and can think, swing your door open all the way. If there are other passengers, have them do the same. It’s possible the doors with their extra 3 feet of length will hang up on the ice and hold the vehicle up for enough time to escape. But if you can only open the door partially and you’re going down, don’t try to get out through the partial opening. The car will tip toward the open door as you go down, filling with water from that direction, and you might get squished.
Q: And if you ride the vehicle down?
A: You’ll have to wait until you get below the ice to exit through a window or however you can. When the vehicle fills with water and the pressure equalizes between outside and inside, you can open a door. But if you can’t, again, you need the window-breaking tool.
Q: How do you find the hole in the ice if you free yourself from the vehicle?
A: You might be so confused you don’t even know down from up. But follow the bubbles. Bubbles go up. And when you’re looking for the hole, look for dark, not light. You’ll think the hole should be light, but it will appear dark.
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