Off-Grid and Free: The Dangers of a Slush-Covered Lake

Reader Contribution by Ron Melchiore
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Good day to all! Picking up from where we left off in my post from last week, I was lamenting the fact that I had inadvertently flooded our bay with water when I bored a hole through the ice. I wanted to assess how thick the ice was and, as it turned out, we had 22 inches.

In this particular case, the water had come from the hole I drilled. But, in my experience, there is always some spot on a frozen lake where water has seeped through to the frozen lake surface. Generally, these spots occur in bays but that’s not always true. So, when I’m out on the lake and either start walking or snowmobiling in an area showing signs of slush, I become concerned. Where’s the hole? Where’s the water coming from?

Dangers of a Slush-Covered Lake

Water seeping onto the lake surface mixes with the snow layer, forming slush. Slush is bad for a number of reasons. When snowmobiling, it’s generally impossible to see slush until you get into it. The snow-covered surface of a lake all looks the same. The first clue that you’re in trouble is when you notice the sled bogging down and then you realize — oops, you’re mired in a soupy mess.

While a light, speedy sled, and a quick reaction to the throttle may allow you to accelerate out of the area, for us, our heavy work snowmobile precludes such a maneuver, so it’s generally all over at that point. Our sled is dead in it’s tracks. Not only is the sled stuck, but if I’m far from home, I have a long slog home to fetch equipment which will allow me to get unstuck.

Additionally, as soon as I hop off the sled, I’m standing in ice water which is now pouring into my boots. The situation is very dangerous at that point. Walking miles in water- logged boots with cold, numb feet is bad news. Although I’ve had to walk in slush with ice water sloshing around in my boots many times in the past 16 years, no situation was as serious as the above scenario when I did, in fact, become stuck miles from the house. Fortunately, I got home, warmed up and dealt with the stuck sled shortly thereafter.

‘Spider Holes’ on a Lake Surface

From the vantage point of a plane flying overhead, it is sometimes possible to ascertain where slush and water are lurking. The telltale sign will be a visible dark spot on the lake surface. These dark spots are called “spider holes”. The following is an excerpt from my book Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness:

From the air, “spider holes” are easily seen, usually in bays, but they can be found anywhere on the lake. Having a central hole with irregular fingers radiating outward, they look like a wet area surrounded by snow. The irregular fingers serve as drainage channels through which water on the surface drains back into the hole. Perhaps they are created when warmer lake water is pushed upward through a crack in the ice and floods the lake surface. The initial flaw in the ice could be a small crack, an animal access point likely used by an otter, or even trapped air bubbles that weaken the ice in that spot. Regardless of how they form, spider holes are dangerous and should be avoided.

While slush is bad for a snowmobile, it’s equally dangerous for a plane on skis. Once a plane gets mired, it can be very difficult to extricate. If weather conditions are cold, the plane can freeze into the mess.

Our nightmare scenario is having a medical emergency which requires a plane to come in for an evacuation. Because of the slush in our bay, any rescue plane will likely need to park some distance from us. We can’t count on the snowmobile to reach the plane since it may get stuck. Medical personnel will have a tough walk in and we’ll have a tough walk out. If time is of the essence, you can easily see how the ice conditions could frustrate and delay help, making the event a life/death situation.

Frozen Lake Safety

Every time we venture onto the ice, we take a chance. Is there a spider hole or weak patch of ice we will encounter with the next step? One of the recurring themes I’ll be talking about in many of my posts is safety. Obviously safety is paramount to everybody, but it takes on a special significance when it’s just my wife and me and help is 100 miles distant.

To compound the situation, help won’t be coming in the dark or in bad weather. Float planes around here follow visual flight rules meaning they need to be able to see where they’re going. When they can’t, we’re truly on our own! We put the odds in our favor if the unthinkable happens and we drop through the ice into the frigid water below. I explain how with another book segment.

As a general rule, whenever I go on the ice, I wear my trusty orange survival suit and carry a set of ice picks. If I did drop through, the ice picks would give me a shot at clawing myself back onto the ice. Ice picks can be homemade or store-bought, but the concept is the same. They are hand-held objects with a sharp point that can dig in and give some purchase when jabbed on to the ice surface. Otherwise, the surface is too slick for my gloved or bare hands to have any chance of pulling myself out of the hole and back up and onto the ice.

If I was lucky enough to get out of the water, I would have limited time to build a fire or get help before hypothermia overtook me. My fingers would surely be numb and stiff, and it would be a difficult task to make a fire to warm up, assuming I even had access to dry matches. Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature drops to the point the body can’t function properly. If it drops far enough, it’s lights out.

Memo to self: don’t fall through the ice!

Always Be Cautious

Living this remote is wonderful but it does force us to evaluate our actions knowing that we are ultimately responsible for our own safety. Taking the precautions outlined above is just one example of how we try to cover all the bases.

Many may be wondering why I am discussing ice and snow in my post since the majority of my readers are likely basking in the warmth. The reality is we are having an abnormally tough spring and the cold and snow continue to plague us.

As recently as April 14th, we had another 5 inches of snow. Lately, the weather has moderated and we hope the below zero temperatures are behind us for another year. The attached pictures were taken this morning (April 19th). The ice picks and survival suit are worn every time I/we venture on to the ice. The survival suit has also come in handy when I had to bail out into the lake to survive a forest fire, but that’s a story for another time.

The snow pack is receding and we have about 12-16 inches left covering the garden. That will go fast. Johanna has transplanted the many small seedlings into individual pots and now all space available on the South facing windowsills are taken with plants. Thanks for reading and I’ll be back again shortly.

Ron Melchiore and his wife, Johanna, currently live alone 100 miles in the wilderness of Northern Saskatchewan. Ron is the author of: Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness, published byMoon Willow Pressand available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Ron can be contacted on hisblog, Facebook andPinterest. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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