Late Fall Outdoor Safety Reminders

Steve Lekwa

Unseasonably warm weather is forecast for the next week as I write this Sunday morning. It’s going to be tempting for outdoors-loving folks to get outside and enjoy it while it lasts. The few hours of warm afternoon sunshine is no longer strong enough to rewarm ponds and lakes very much, though. Cool, clear nights can leave at least a thin covering of ice by morning. It’s going to take consecutive days of below-freezing temperatures before enough ice forms to support safe ice recreation. Keep in mind that snow cover greatly slows ice formation because it is a great insulator. Ice safety guidelines vary depending on the source you’re using. Newer sources tend toward thicker minimums for different activities, too. The numbers from all sources I checked were for new, clear ice. Cloudy or milky ice may be only half as strong. Ice formed over moving water is much more variable, and old ice is weaker than new ice. Most sources indicate that anything less than two inches of clear ice is unsafe for any activity, but that two inches may be OK to safely support a single person walking or skating. Four inches are suggested for small groups and ice fishing activity. Light vehicles such as snowmobiles and four-wheelers should wait until there are at least five to six inches of clear ice. Although several sources claimed that eight inches of clear ice was safe for a vehicle like a car, I would recommend waiting until there are at least twelve inches of good ice before driving any heavier enclosed vehicle onto the ice. Ice thickness can vary considerably, and just because you find eight inches when you first check doesn’t mean that other areas of the same lake might be much less. That’s particularly true if the lake is aerated or if waterfowl are keeping a portion of it open. An few extra inches is good insurance.

Early ice can offer some of the best ice fishing of the year, but getting out before the ice is safe isn’t worth the risk of hypothermia or even death if you should fall through. It’s always a good idea to buddy up, too, especially on early ice. Your partner should stay well away from you as you work your way out onto the ice, testing thickness frequently as you go. A buddy isn’t much good to you if he has just fallen into the same hole that you did. Never approach the hole where someone has fallen in on foot. Instead, belly out toward the hole pushing a long branch or board ahead of you. You could toss a rope to the victim, but be aware that you’ll have very little traction to pull them to safety. A person who’s fallen through the ice may be panicking, so make sure you aren’t pulled in as you try to help. A person’s capacity to save themselves diminishes rapidly in 33 degree water, so some recommend wearing a life jacket on early ice.

Deer hunters are required to wear blaze orange clothing to make sure other hunters can see them and not mistake them for game. They’ll be in the woods until the end of shotgun season on Dec. 20. You should wear similar clothing for the same reason if you’re going to be around area woodlands for recreation or work. Refuges like McFarland Park and Robison Wildlife Acres and private land closed to hunting may be adjoining other land that is open for hunting. A shotgun slug can travel for hundreds of yards, so it’s still important that you can be seen clearly. It’s also wise to avoid colors that could be mistaken for game. Different parts of a deer are black, white, gray and brown. The brown color of several brands of coveralls and work outerwear is way too close to the color of a deer. A white hanky or mittens might look a lot like a deer’s white tail as you blow your nose. A red coat can look brown in poorer evening light.

Turf and aggregate surfaced trails can be very greasy during daily freeze-thaw cycles, and wooden steps can become very slick with morning frost. Paved trails like the newly extended Touch-a-life Trail at McFarland Park (now all the way around the lake), those at Ames’ Ada Hayden Park, and municipal greenbelt trails in Ames, Story City and Nevada offer late season walkers a safer, less messy alternative. Get out and enjoy the mild days that can be all too rare in an Iowa December, but enjoy them safely.