Going out on the ice? Make sure it’s safe

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Each year about this time, the Maine Warden Service urges us to use extreme caution before venturing out onto any ice that may be covering Maine’s waterways.

This is timely advice. Two winters ago three night-time snowsledders all perished in one night on Rangeley Lake when they and their machines broke through thin ice.

This year, because of the extended period of unseasonably warm December weather, many ponds and lakes remain open, even in the northern part of the state. As January progresses many bodies of water should “button up.” Still, caution is always advised. Maine’s lakes and ponds may appear to be frozen, however safe ice conditions cannot be assumed.

Ice conditions vary greatly throughout the state, and while ice conditions may be safe in some spots, conditions can be very dangerous in others. The Maine Warden Service is recommending that people check the thickness of any ice before venturing out for any activity on frozen water.

If you must go on the ice, the Maine Warden Service offers these tips for ice safety:

  • Never guess the thickness of the ice. Check it! Check the ice in several different places using an auger or some other means to make a test hole and determine the thickness. Make several, beginning at the shore, and continuing as you go out.
  • Check the ice with a partner, so if something does happen, someone is there to help you. If you are doing it alone, wear a lifejacket.
  • If ice at the shoreline is cracked or squishy, stay off! Watch out for thin, clear or honeycombed ice. Dark snow and dark ice are other signs of weak spots.
  • Avoid areas with currents, around bridges and pressure ridges. Wind and currents can break ice.
  • Parents should alert children of unsafe ice in their area, and make sure that they stay off the ice. If they insist on using their new skates, suggest an indoor skating rink.



Modified From the Northeast Logger Magazine, 1968

Inches of Ice Permissible Load for Clear Blue Ice

                    1                                                                                          Unsafe for humans

                    2                                                                                          One person on foot

                    3                                                                                          Group in a single file

                    4                                                                                          Snowmobiles & ATVs

                    7                                                                                          Passenger car (2 tons)

                    8                                                                                          Light truck (2.5 tons)


Note: The above table is for clear blue ice on lakes and ponds.

         Reduce the strength values by 15% for clear blue river ice.

         Slush ice is only 50% the strength of blue ice.

If you break through the ice, remember:

  • Don’t panic.
  • Don’t try to climb out immediately — you will probably break the ice again. Reach for solid ice.
  • Lay both arms on the unbroken ice and kick hard. This will help lift your body onto the ice. Once on the ice, roll, DON’T WALK, to safety.
  • To help someone who has fallen through the ice, lie down flat and reach with a branch, plank or rope or form a human chain. Don’t stand. After securing the victim, wiggle backwards to the solid ice.

Again, snowsledders take note. Snowsledding at night on frozen waterways can be tricky business, especially for those unfamiliar with the conditions of a lake, pond or other waterway.


The author is editor of the “Northwoods Sporting Journal.” He is also a Maine guide and host of a weekly radio program — “Maine Outdoors” — heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on “The Voice of Maine News – Talk Network.” He has authored three books; online purchase information is available at


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