Several years ago, while spending time at the family cottage in Ontario, Jamie Orfald-Clarke and his parents went for a skate on the frozen lake.
It was mid-winter. Based on how cold it had been, plus their history of enjoying countless similar skating sessions over the years, they figured the ice was well established.
“You could drive a truck on the lake,” Orfald-Clarke remembered.
But the ice wasn’t consistent. While it was thick enough for a vehicle in some areas, in others, it was hollow and wet.
As the family skated further across the frozen wetland, suddenly, to Jamie’s horror, both of his parents broke through the ice. Luckily, it was in a shallow, marshy area. Thankfully, they were relatively close to home.
“It was surprising,” he recalled. “We weren’t really considering the possibility of going in.”
Orfald-Clarke quickly helped extricate his mom and dad from the water. Shortly after, they built a fire and started to warm up.
“If it had been minus 30 degrees and if we were far away from the cottage it could have been a lot worse,” he said.
That near-miss stayed with Orfald-Clarke. The whitewater paddling guide hadn’t been giving ice skating the respect it deserved in terms of planning for an incident-free outing. He never thought twice about carrying the necessary safety equipment when canoeing or kayaking—and he knew backcountry skiers and snowboarders equipped themselves with a quiver of rescue gear when venturing into avalanche terrain. However, when it came to recreating on a frozen body of water, he wasn’t treating the environment as similarly dynamic—or similarly dangerous.
“Even just getting a soaker can turn into a serious incident,” he said.
Seeing his parents in a vulnerable situation helped change his mind as to the real possibility of contracting hypothermia by being a little too laissez-faire, and now he’s helping others shift their perspective when it comes to getting on wild ice. Through Boreal River Rescue in Ottawa, Orfald-Clarke is certified as an ice rescue instructor, and when he teaches two-day courses on ice awareness, he tells his students there’s a lot more to judging whether ice is safe or not by stomping one’s feet on it.
“The foundation of all of these rescue courses is always decision making,” he said.
Factors such as topography, time of year, temperature and whether or not there is running water all contribute to making a judgement call as to how to engage naturally-forming ice. And the different types of ice that forms in the natural environment are as varied as the ways in which people access it.
“We give people different tools of preparedness depending on whether they’re skating, skiing, snowshoeing or snowmobiling,” Orfald-Clarke said.
Often, the only way to get a good feel for the myriad factors of ice formation is to get to its breaking point—literally.
“It’s a really empowering experience to go out on the ice and jump up and down until you break through,” Orfald-Clarke said.
Of course, he’s wearing a dry suit and a PFD when he does so, but having a sense of how it feels to plunge into frigid waters offers a big advantage if the scenario were to ever happen for real.
“It takes some of the mystery away,” Orfald-Clarke said.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t still unknowns when it comes to playing safe on the ice. Even though we’ve had a recent cold snap, Orfald-Clarke says every waterbody is different. Moreover, with the proliferation of social media, weekend warriors may be tempted to gloss over skating safety to snap their skating selfie. Orfald-Clarke emphasizes thinking ahead.
For himself, a wild ice skating excursion always includes, at a bare minimum, an extra pair of socks and a stash of plastic bag/boot liners, just in case he steps through a soft spot. If he’s feeling more adventurous, he might pack along the dry suit, throw ropes and PFD.
“In Jasper we have a lot of different micro climates,” he said. “Lakes are definitely a lot more uniform than swamps and rivers but conditions can change quickly.”
Bob Covey // email@example.com