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'He was to the point of giving up.' Behind the numbers, trends emerge in MN ice fatalities

Not all lakes and rivers with thin ice have these warning signs. Experts say people who go onto ice should check its depth regularly to make sure it is safe. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources photo1 / 5
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Marc Lenz of Willmar hauls his ice fishing gear in March of 2016 on Foot Lake in Willmar. The Kandiyohi County sheriff was requesting people not drive vehicles on the lake ice, as warmer weather caused the ice to melt. Rand Middleton / Forum News Service4 / 5
People who get in trouble on thin ice may use ice picks to make their way on the slippery surface, as shown in this ice rescue training on Cass Lake. Minnesota Departmet of Natural Resources photo5 / 5

ST. PAUL—Joel Schaberg can be forgiven if shivers go through his body when he thinks back to that early December 2017 day.

"We got sick of waiting for the lakes to freeze over," Schaberg recalled about an early-season ice-fishing adventure. "It felt safe and it was shallow, so if you fell in it was no big deal."

But Forest Lake, in a Minnesota town of the same name, was not ready for ice anglers, as he and a friend discovered.

They thought they were ready, knowing the dangers. They did not just walk onto the lake, but used kayaks instead.

"We were fishing and having fun," Schaberg, 27, said about the relatively warm "gorgeous" day.

As they were getting ready to leave, Schaberg said he thinks his friend's kayak tipped over in ice and "he grabbed onto my kayak ... ended up rolling." Then the friend grabbed Schaberg.

Schaberg's life jacket began to inflate automatically with carbon dioxide once it touched water.

Schaberg, a veteran ice angler, was in the water about 15 minutes, but his friend was in the cold water about 20 minutes and Schaberg did not expect the friend to survive.

"You could tell by the look in his eyes that he was to the point of giving up," Schaberg said. "I thought 100 percent he wasn't going to make it that day."

But, they both survived, Schaberg said, because his inflatable life jacket kept their heads above water.

His father taught him to always wear a life jacket, and when the automatic inflating ones came out, he got one. His friend, who was wearing an old fashioned life vest in December, now has a modern one, too.

The event was one of several close calls the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has heard about on ice this season. As the ice season nears its end, the DNR recommends caution.

"Typically, at the bookends of the ice season we do see a lot of the fatalities," said Lisa Dugan of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

"Conditions change very quickly,": Dugan said, so as people venture out onto ice they should check its depth often and rely more on that than the calendar.

A Forum News Service study of DNR data about deaths attributed to people falling through the ice in Minnesota shows December to be the most dangerous, as people like Schaberg are eager to begin the ice fishing season. But they also are high near the end of the ice season.

Since 1976, the most ice-related fatalities, 22, came in the most-populated county, Hennepin. But lake-rich St. Louis County closely followed with 20 deaths.

More people died while snowmobiling (86) than any other activity, but simply walking on thin ice took 72 lives and driving in a car or other vehicle that fell through was fatal to 58.

The DNR's listing of ice-related deaths makes it obvious that as a general rule the more rural the body of water, the more likely an ice-related death came from a snowmobile, all-terrain vehicle, car or other vehicle fell through the water. A look at St. Louis County, for instance, shows 16 of the county's 20 deaths came while the victims were in or on motorized vehicles.

In Hennepin County, on the other hand, 13 of 22 deaths were people on foot.

Deaths occurred throughout the state and of people aged 7 months to 87 years.

Most deaths came in lakes, with only a few on rivers.

Minnesota is a rare state in that it keeps track of ice-related deaths. Neighbors North Dakota and Wisconsin do not.

Dugan said that people in the Upper Midwest have more ways to stay safe now than in years past.

Schaberg's inflatable jacket is one safety device that is becoming more popular, although she said that even boat life vests can be better than nothing.

However, experts advise not to use life jackets when riding in an enclosed vehicle on ice because it could make getting out harder. Schaberg insists any passengers he takes onto the ice roll down their windows at least half way so if the vehicle sinks, the pressure inside and outside will be equal, which makes escape easier.

Ice experts like Dugan emphasize that a person cannot tell the safety of ice just by looking at it.

One visual clue that ice may not be safe is if it is white or covered with snow. Clear, new ice is stronger.

Dugan suggests digging a hole every 100 feet or less to see how deep the ice is. "Don't take it for granted" that ice levels a few feet apart are the same, she said.

If, even after checking the ice, a person breaks through, the chance of a safe return to shore is increased if the person remains calm and tries to pull himself up onto the ice. Dugan suggests everyone carry ice picks when they are on the ice to make getting out of the water easier on the slick ice.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.