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A bad year for ice fatalities on the lakes

Ice Safety graphic

Lisa Dugan, safety education outreach coordinator for the DNR, can't wait to see 20-below weather.

She wants Minnesota lakes to freeze over good and solid so ATVs and snowmobiles quit breaking through.

"We currently have five reported ice fatalities for just this ice season — that's greater than the last two seasons combined, and it's only late December," she said.

"All these fatalities involved either an ATV or snowmobile," Dugan added. "It's unfortunately trending to be a very fatal ice season."

There were two ice fatalities last season in Minnesota and none the season before that.

In this area, Saturday was a bad day for being on the lake.

An Ottertail man was treated for severe hypothermia after falling through thin ice while riding his snowmobile Saturday, Dec. 16.

Shortly after noon on Saturday, the Otter Tail Sheriff's Office reported that Hubert Hovland, 55, was riding his snowmobile on Walker Lake and fell through the ice.

Two others with Hovland fell through when attempting to rescue him. They were able to get out of the water without injury, but Hovland was submerged for 30 minutes. Ottertail firefighters used water suits to rescue Hovland, who was taken to Perham Health with severe hypothermia.

Fortunately, nobody was seriously hurt, but the Becker County Sheriff's Office responded to two calls of ATVs going through the ice Saturday afternoon.

The first incident happened around 3:45 p.m. on Little Cormorant Lake when a man driving a side-by-side ATV broke through the ice in approximately 4 to 5 feet of water, said Sheriff Todd Glander. No medical attention was needed and the man made it off the ice safely.

Around 5 p.m. on the north end of Big Floyd Lake, also known as Mud Lake, a man was pulling a fish house behind his side-by-side ATV when both the fish house and the ATV broke through the ice. The driver escaped through the passenger side window, Glander said, and he didn't need medical attention. The depth of water was unknown.

Glander used both cases as a reminder for people to use extreme caution when venturing onto the ice. He said ice conditions vary daily due to weather conditions, water current, fish or other animal activity, and other reasons.

The DNR says it's a problem statewide.

Despite an early-season cold snap that froze waters across the state, warmer weather and even rain have led to a situation where "ice is deteriorating rapidly and creating potentially dangerous conditions for anglers, snowmobilers, skiers and others planning to recreate on the ice over the holidays," the DNR said in a statement on Friday. "Conservation officers across the state are reporting vehicles, snowmobiles and ATVs going through the ice on lakes where ice may be relatively thick in one area, with as little as 4-5 inches nearby."

With larger, heavier ATVs getting more popular, the DNR has upgraded its minimum requirements for ATVs and snowmobiles from 5 inches of clear ice to 5-7 inches of clear ice, Dugan said. Double that for white or snow-covered ice.

A side-by-side ATV can weigh around 1,500 pounds, while smaller single-seat ATVs usually weigh 350-400 pounds. Both the incidents in Becker County Saturday involved side-by-sides.

"In the past five ice seasons, ATVs and snowmobiles were involved in almost half of the fatalities," Dugan said."People are not taking into account the extra weight, and extra ice thickness is needed to support that."

Gary Thompson, owner of Tri-State Diving on Little Floyd Lake, said he and his crew have been busy this season, pulling out vehicles that went through the ice.

"We did two yesterday," he said Tuesday. "One Sunday, all on different lakes ... 'tis the season."

Many have been side-by-side ATVs or bigger vehicles — one was a SnoBear, with tracks in back, skis in front and an enclosed body for ice fishing that hydraulically raises and lowers to the ice. It weighs in at some 2,900 pounds.

State law requires that vehicles that go through the ice be removed. How long the owner has to remove it is set by each county's sheriff's office, and each is a little different, Thompson said. In some case, with extremely deep lakes, retrieval has to wait until spring.

With below-zero temperatures forecast for this weekend and into next week, lakes should build ice quickly, but Dugan cautions people to stay alert out there.

Because of currents, aeration systems and even schools of fish and busy beavers, "the ice may not be consistent," she said. "There's a lot happening under the ice you can't see from on top of it."

Dugan recommends checking ice thickness at least every 150 feet as you venture onto the lake.

"It never hurts to wear a life jacket," she said. "It surprises people that that could be a piece of equipment to bring out on the ice, but under that ice is a lot of cold water — a life jacket will keep your head above water and give you a little time to get out of that situation."

Glander said to call 911 immediately if you see someone break through the ice.