The days are becoming shorter, and temperatures are falling. Ice is forming on ponds and lakes, and winter sports enthusiasts are already checking out skating conditions.
A three-day cold snap a few weeks ago had the parking lot at Sheridan Glacier trailhead packed with vehicles, as freezing weather produced marvelous conditions for smooth skating amidst icebergs on the lake in front of the glacier.
The quest for “first ice” is a signal that winter is almost upon us, and many locals know that access to that area is fleeting. Sheridan Glacier Road is not plowed during the winter, and once the snow piles up the road is basically closed.
As always, the thickness of the ice is a variable of concern.
“Skating on thin ice” is a phrase used to describe the potential hazards inherent in many situations, and none more so than zipping across frozen water itself.
The good old Farmer’s Almanac includes a “Table of safe ice thickness for solid, blue/black pond and lake ice.” Its numbers might surprise you: “3 inches for a single person on foot; 4 inches for group in single file; 8 inches for a light truck.”
It suggests bringing a drill to check thickness. Many locals use an ice axe for that purpose, which they carry in hand while skating to help claw out should they break through.
Which happens more often than one might think.
Almost every year, news circulates of someone going through the ice at Sheridan. Last year an individual riding a fat tire bike fell through while towing his son on a sled. They were able to extricate themselves and hike out.
Three times in the past decade I have escorted shivering, dripping skaters back to the parking lot with hypothermia a necessary concern.
And I confess to my first-hand experience with taking a chilly dip. Several years back, I was skating with friends on Eyak Lake, and while going backwards, I cruised right into an open gas bubble hole. Luckily, the ice around the opening was solid enough that I could catch myself by my arms, and crawl onto the ice with the help of friends.
It was not an experience I wish to duplicate.
So, some thoughts on safety.
The Farmer’s Almanac mentions equipment including a life jacket, ice picks, cell phone and length of rope.
The ice picks mentioned can be found online. Basically, they are hand-held spikes that can be driven into the ice to pull oneself out. Many skaters now wear them on cords through the sleeves of their jacket, so they aren’t lost when taking a spill.
Somehow the Almanac leaves out the most important piece of equipment of all — a partner.
It is hard to be pulled out with a throw rope if there is no one on the other end, and getting close enough to rescue a person in the water can be dangerous.
Finally, there is one other essential safety ingredient that comes free and often may be overlooked.
One of my pet peeves is ice skaters wearing headphones and listening to music while gliding along. Hmmm. The sound of ice cracking beneath your feet might be worth hearing. Same with the loud cracks of nearby pressure ridges opening up, or the rushing sound of moving water from Sherman River entering or exiting the lake.
Speaking of awareness, Eyak Lake is much more accessible when Sheridan Glacier Road is closed, but it comes with a different set of hazards. Most of the risks are caused by gas bubbles coming up from the bottom that can create weak ice or open water.
There are several places on the lake, such as near Skipper Beach and Davis Cove, where such gas pockets are common.
Regardless of location, enjoy the ice skating. It’s one of the reasons we live here — to revel in the amazing grace and beauty of effortlessly gliding along in our beautiful outdoors.