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Being prepared paid off

Jan 03, 2021 06:14AM ● By Editor
Getting dry clothes on after falling through the ice on Burntside.  Photo: Tower Timberjay

By Marshall Helmberger of The Tower Timberjay - December 29, 2020

Earlier in December, I wrote about being prepared for whatever winter weather conditions Mother Nature throws our way. Our lack of snow earlier in the month, meant I had pulled my Nordic skates out of the closet and was putting on the miles skating. 

While I started on Lost Lake, near Tower, word got out about Burntside, which had beautiful dark ice above its clear waters, so friends and I did a few long skates there, winding among the islands on the western half of the big lake. 

It was amazing. It was also a good reminder of the importance of being prepared. I had written about the fact that Burntside is one of the later lakes to freeze in the area, both because it’s large but also because it’s deep and has plenty of springs. I had been most concerned about the ice out in the deep water. Turns out, it was the ice along shore I should have been worried about. 

The first day out on Burntside, a friend and I skated effortlessly for miles on a mild overcast and windless day. We started at the small public landing at Outlet Bay and followed the south shoreline west and then north and finally northeast along the lake’s north shore. Eventually, we decided the Crab Lake portage would be a good goal for a turnaround point. 

We didn’t get that far. As we rounded the last major point before the portage, I noticed a toe of open water extending out from the point. I jumped up as I skated by the open water to test the ice and it made noticeable ripples in the water. Not good, I thought. Moments later the ice underneath me started cracking so I turned out away from shore, hoping for thicker ice and managed to avoid falling through. My friend, who was wearing his old hockey skates, felt cracking under him as well so we decided we’d had enough for the afternoon. Cracking ice seemed like a good sign it was time to turn around. 

Two days later, after a brief cold snap that I was sure would have stiffened the ice, I was back, with another friend, with the idea of making it to the Crab Lake portage, walking the portage, and then attempting to skate on Crab Lake. It had the makings of a great adventure. Given the conditions from two days earlier, I insisted that we be a bit more prepared. Besides packing a lunch, I brought life preservers and the ice picks I usually bring when venturing on early season ice. We also packed some dry clothes in waterproof bags. 

The trip started out well. The temperature was colder and the ice was harder than before, so it all seemed like my precautions wouldn’t be necessary in the end. We made it most of the way without incident. Then, as we were skating past another small point where there had been a small patch of open water two days earlier, I called out to my friend. “It was open water right there the other day.” At that exact moment, the ice collapsed under me in an instant. No warning, just gone. 

I was too shocked to feel the icy water as I realized what had just happened. I have traveled on ice my entire life and this was the first time I had ever gone through. Fortunately, the water was only about three feet deep right there, so I wasn’t at risk of drowning. But my forward momentum had ensured that I was soaked through from the chest down. My life preserver provided a bit of buoyancy and I was able to gain enough purchase on the boulder-strewn lake bottom to flop forward onto stiffer ice, which fortunately held. I clambered out of the water and walked quickly back in the direction we had come. No sense falling through again, after all. 


At this point, we were several miles from the car. Although we certainly could have abandoned our effort and made it back, I wasn’t ready to call an end to our adventure. So, we went back to shore, started a fire and I stripped off my wet clothes, put on the dry long underwear and shirt I had brought and worked to dry my outer clothes with the heat from the fire. I had hoped to get back on track and make it to Crab Lake after all. We ate lunch while the fire did its job. I ruined an old pair of gloves that got too close to the fire and scorched an old set of wind pants, but by the time we were done, my stuff was mostly dry, except for my ski boots, which were soaked through beyond hope. 

It was a cooler day than we’d had recently, with a temperature around 20 degrees and a persistent north wind, so despite the fire, we were both a bit chilled after an hour of drying. And, as we had gotten a later start than we had wanted, the prospect of making it back before dark began to diminish. Finding our way through the maze of Burntside islands in the dark didn’t really appeal to us, not to mention the prospect of running into more thin ice. So, we packed up our stuff (my flannel-lined jeans must have weighed about ten pounds!) and made the long skate back to the car without further incident. 

We were back the next day to try again, but it had snowed overnight, which meant we couldn’t see the ice. After the incident the day before, the snow cover was unsettling. We made it as far as the spot where I fell through and decided that was enough for the day. 

We had hoped to come back the following weekend, but the snow tap, which had been closed tight for weeks, was finally reopened, ending an unusually long and spectacular skating season. Crab Lake will have to wait. Maybe next year. And if the right conditions come, I’ll be prepared…

To read the original story and see more outdoors reporting, follow this link to The Tower Timberjay website.  http://timberjay.com/stories/being-prepared-paid-off,17179

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