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'When in doubt, don't go out'



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Justin Tomei and Steve Marks fish on Lake 16. Photo by L. Farrell (click for larger version)

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(click for larger version)
January 16, 2013 - "I've been here 31 years and never fell in the lake before," Edgar Barbar said. As reported in the Dec. 7, 1967 Lake Orion Review, Barbar and neighbor Robert Chamberlain were pulled from the icy waters of Lake Orion by alert neighbors Mrs. Chuck Mosley and Francine Howland.

Fast-forward twenty-one years and an afternoon of recreation became a lesson in lifesaving for a local couple. According to the Jan. 13 1988 Lake Orion Review, thanks to the couple's quick action , two men were rescued.

Flash forward again to 2013: "Oakland County Sheriff's deputies [located] a 63-year-old Rose Township man who fell through the ice while fishing on Groveland Township's Hartwig Lake. . . .The Sheriff's Office said the man's truck was located near the lake and fishing gear was found near a large hole in the ice as well as in the water," the Oakland Press reported.

As these three snippets show, Michiganders have been fishing on the ice as long as there have been Michiganders. And concerns about ice fishing safety have been around just as long.

If you were to ask law enforcement agents, you'd likely be told that venturing onto the ice is a bad idea. As Oakland County Sheriff Sgt. Patrick Hatfield explained it, "there may be cracks under the surface that we're not seeing, so our recommendation is that no ice is 100% safe."

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Hatfield is one of the seasoned professionals who responds to calls of ice drownings. His men go out as soon as possible, strapping on an additional 100 pounds of gear to track whoever has fallen through the ice.

Even in the daytime, Hatfield said, visibility under snow-covered ice is "so bad you can't even see your hands. . .you're just feeling along, and then all of a sudden you encounter that person by feel."

The situation is understandably unpleasant, even for trained and experienced professionals like Hatfield. Unless they are right at hand when the distress call goes out, these divers expect the worst when they go out.

Hatfield says ice drownings are rare, with only one Oakland County fatality in two winters. However, rescues are more frequent, and call for quick action.

Hatfield's advice? "If you are going to venture out there, always wear a life jacket, let somebody know where you are at, or fish with somebody else."

If you are with a person who has fallen through the ice, Hatfield said your first option is to call 9-1-1. That will get emergency responders rolling your way.

"Secondly, if you are able to, throw them a lifeline--anything that will float. That would give us or the fire department the opportunity to get there," Hatfield said.

Resist the urge to jump in after the victim. "Don't get in the water with them, because they're in a total panic and the fight will be on and the chances are they're going to drag both of you down, he explained.

If you can get them out of the water, try to get them warm as quickly as possible, Hatfield concluded.

Hatfield and the Sheriff's department would rather you not venture on to ice at all. But if you do, the Oakland County Sheriff's Department offers the following guidelines. Make sure the ice is at least five inches thick at minimum for fishing, ice skating, and general foot traffic. If you must take an off road vehicle on to the ice, ensure that the ice is at least eight inches thick. Automobile use on ice is discouraged.

Since conditions can change from lake to lake, day to day, and hour to hour, officials ask that you survey the ice before stepping on. There are tell-tale signs of changing ice conditions to be aware of should you decide to step onto the ice. For example, look for moving water, slushy areas, depressions in the snow, heavy snow, white "milky" or black colored ice and "frazzle" ice weakened by the freeze-thaw cycles. These are all signs of thin ice or unsafe ice.

You'll also increase your odds if you venture out with a partner. A partner can make the life-saving 9-1-1 call you'll be begging for should you fall through.

Be sure to make your travel plans known so that emergency calls and a search party may be organized should you not return.

Plan ahead by dressing appropriately for changing Michigan weather conditions. Dress in layers to protect exposed parts of your body. Consider wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) as part of your overall protective clothing or a flotation jacket or suit. Ice creepers attached to boots will help to keep you stable on the ice and can assist in self-rescue.

Safety items like a cell phone, whistle, rope, ice pick or awls, screw driver, hand flares, flashlight, and a throwable floation device would be wise to pack before you head out.

But if the worst does happen and you fall through the ice, do not panic, because this will only hinder your self-rescue actions. Call out for help and kick your feet while getting your hands and then arms up onto safer ice.

If you find your pet has ventured out onto the ice, resist the urge to go out after them. Stay at a safe position on shore and persuade them back to safety.

Wildlife such as deer that venture onto unsafe ice is a natural occurrence, the Sheriff's office indicated, and are strong swimmers prepared for cold weather and find their own way off the ice.

Orion Township is a beautiful and plentiful area that offers many outdoor recreation opportunities on its lakes and ponds. However, the Sheriffs encourage you to plan ahead and consider the risks involved.

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