February 12, 2014 - Last month, as many area residents stayed inside for warmth or bundled up when they ventured outside in temperatures that dipped below zero, twelve brave souls plunged into a local icy lake.
On Jan. 15, members of the Oakland County Sheriff's Office Marine Dive Team, including Det. Nick Pung of the Brandon substation, conducted training exercises at the Independence Oaks County Park.
The team, Pung said, tries to have at least one lake training day per winter, ice permitting. The divers walk across the ice until they reach a point off shore where the water depth is approximately 30-40 feet and cut a 5-foot triangular hole in the ice. Wearing a dry suit, hood, gloves, oxygen tank and regulators, each diver then takes a turn in water that on this particular occasion was a temperature of about 39 degrees.
Two ropes are attached to ice anchors, with one rope used by the diver and a second rope at the ready for use by a back-up diver if the first diver gets into trouble. Each diver performs two exercises.
"The first simulates looking for a person trapped beneath the surface of the ice," said Pung. "The second exercise is to search the bottom of the lake in a recovery effort."
Once beneath the surface of the ice, a diver communicates through rope tugs with a line tender, who keeps track of the approximate location of the diver. Exercises last about 10-15 minutes. Pung notes that in real-life missions, dives last until the diver is too cold or is out of air. Oxygen supply is dependent on depth of the dive, activity level, and how fast the diver is breathing. The maximum dive is usually about 30 minutes.
In five years on the dive team, Pung said he has been on three ice missions, including one in Groveland Township last year in which divers recovered the body of an ice fisherman on New Year's Day after he was reported missing the day before. Donald Thorpe had fallen through about an inch of ice on Hartwig Lake roughly 200 feet off shore.
Pung has also been on several missions during warmer months, but said the chances for rescue are better on ice because of water temperature. Divers keep their equipment in their vehicles at all times to be prepared and while the temperatures have been below freezing, he likens wearing a dive suit in an icy lake to putting a snowsuit on and lying in the snow. More challenging than cold for divers is visibility. Being under the ice doesn't necessarily hamper sight. Depending on sunlight and ice conditions, divers may not need a light.
But in poor conditions, particularly with silt and mulch, divers may not be able to see their own hands, even with light they have taken with them into the depths.
"I've been where it's so dark you can't see the flashlight," said Pung. "You don't panic, you're trained and strangely comfortable with it."
When visibility is good, divers see a variety of items in the lakes around Oakland County, as well as lakes in Macomb and Wayne counties, the Great Lakes, and the Detroit River, all of which Pung has dived in.
"You find all kinds of stuff— beer bottles, fishing poles, boat motors, anchors," he said. "Anything you might lose is down there somewhere. The Detroit River is full of stuff dumped from cruise ships."
Pung reminds citizens that in order to be considered good, ice should be at least six inches thick, but he adds that ice changes daily and there is no "safe time" in Michigan.
"Ice is not constant— it can be 5 inches in one spot and open water two feet away," he said. "If someone goes out and drives a vehicle on the ice, breaks through and is lucky enough to survive, they will have one helluva bill. There are consequences for ignorance."
Check ice daily and always wear a personal flotation device whenever you are on the ice.
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville