Unless you really know what you are doing stay off the ice!

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The following is a fictionalized version of a true story recently told to me by two of the people involved. All the names of those still living have been changed. Please do not let this happen to you.


No one is sure why Fred took the chance he took that day, but when Elmer saw him flailing in the icy water surrounded by black ice 300 yards out in Medicine Lake, he did not at that time think to divine his motivations for being there. Fred, an old man who had been ice fishing for dozens of generations of fish and two or three generations of more mortal men, had gone out on the black ice where he should not have been, and now that he had broken through, he’d have only minutes before his body temperature chilled down enough for him to fall unavoidably to sleep, then slip into the water and drown, or just shut down and die.

“Black ice,” by the way, is the term used for ice that is thin and clear enough that you can see the dark waters of the lake beneath it, and it is almost always too thin to walk on. On this particular day on Medicine lake, there had been storms and the temperatures a bit high, causing much of the lake to be slushy on the surface of ice normally thick enough to hold anglers, ice houses, even pickups. Perhaps Fred had thought the black ice was just dirty slush.

In any event, Elmer knew he needed to act quickly else Fred would not survive. He remembered that moments ago, on his way out on the lake, he had passed a 15 foot long 2×4. Chances are pretty good someone had put this long piece of wood out there as a precaution, for the very purpose for which Elmer was about to use it.

Elmer quickly fetched the 2×4, and headed towards Fred. As he got closer, he lay on the ground and crawled several feet forward, pushing the wood ahead of him.

“Grab the 2×4!!!” shouted Elmer. Seeing the squared off end of salvation looming into view, Fred grabbed it. Then, as Elmer started to pull backwards on the wood, the weight of the two men bore down on the tenuous linear connection between them and sliced through the ice like a wire cheese cutter through medium cheddar. The weight on Fred’s side made Elmer see-saw upwards, and as he came back down he thought he was going to crash through the ice himself.

But Elmer settled gently enough on the ice to not break it, and laying face down stopped to count his lucky stars that the ice was holding, for the moment.

But he was indeed on thin ice in thinking that the ice was thick enough for his mass, and suddenly the ice stopped holding and before he could say “Uffda” Elmer was in the freezing lake surrounded by little irregular ice cubes and slush, feeling a lot like a slice of grapefruit in a bowl of Sangria. Doomed grapefruit.

Fortunately for Elmer, Knute Thimson happened to be watching this fiasco from the remains of his ice house a few hundred yards along the lake. Knute had been inspecting his former ice house, which had been blown to bits in the storm, and he had just set about the job of picking up the pieces, wondering if it would be better to try to put it all back together, or if he should just bring what was now essentially litter home and borrow his cousin’s ice house. His cousin, a missionary working in Africa, only used his ice house for about one week every two years when he would come home for the holidays. Even then, he’d only use it for a day or two.

As Knute instinctively started trekking across the ice towards the scene of Fred and Elmer’s plight, these thoughts faded into the background as thoughts of what to do about the current situation began to form. At first, Knute had no idea what his rescue strategy should be. In a different sort of universe, not the one we actually live in, he may have thought, “Damn. I wish cell phones had been invented, I’d call the Sheriff.” And just as he was not having this thought, he stumbled over the four by four foot pallet that made up the base of his own former ice house. It had blown quite far in the windy storm, and it was wide and flat and made of wood, which floats.

Knute picked up one side of the pallet and dragged it towards Elmer, increasing his pace to as much of a jog has he could manage on the slushy ice. As he neared Elmer, he dropped to his knees, still moving forward, and slid the pallet around in front of him. Knute and the pallet then slid a few more feet foward, with Knute’s feet pedaling hard to make that happen, and the edge of the pallet came to within Elmer’s reach. It looked like a rescue technique he had been practicing for decades, but really, it was just his instincts, a bit of good luck, and physics working, for once, in his favor.

Now, Elmer could reach the pallet, drag himself up onto the edge of the ice, causing the ice to fracture, falling part way through, with Knute drawing the pallet backwards, Elmer one again pulling himself forward and falling through again, in what must have looked like a Minnesota version of the Sisyphus myth but with a pallet instead of a rock and a lake instead of a mountain.

But the men were not planning to do this for eternity. Both knew that as they inched along the ice, dragging and crashing, dragging and crashing, they would eventually reach a place where there would be a firmer hold. So they continued this effort, grimly holding to the belief that they would survive, fighting off the sense of embarrassment that always accompanies near death experiences.

Elsewhere, in a nearby parking lot, just about the time that Elmer was see-sawing on the 2×4 with Fred, Ollie Olsen, just arrived at the lake, was observing the splashing and hearing the yelling and figuring out that something was wrong. It is said by many that a man is either very strong or very smart, but Ollie defied that rule. He was a giant of a man and as sharp as they come. He calculated that he was too far from the black ice to help, too big to get very close, but since he was standing next to his car he could drive quickly to Sadie’s Eatery, just down the road, and call for help. As he yanked the break and signal wires free and popped the ball to disencumber his vehicle of the ice-house toting trailer, the thought may or may not have occurred to him that it would be nice if cell phones existed already. And he jumped in his vehicle, an Azure Blue 1966 GMC Suburban, and overcoming a strong sense of wrongness, exceeded the speed limit to hasten his arrival at the phone booth in Sadie’s parking lot.

The fire department was very close by, and the men there were just coming back from a false alarm at the newly built Middle School (the wiring on the alarm system was bad), so they were still wearing their heavy rubber coats, big black and yellow boots, and red firemen hats when the alarm rang and the captain said “There’s two ice fishermen through the ice on Medicine, north side. You and you, go down there and check it out. Take the pumper,” pointing to the two most experienced men on the force, whom the chief figured would best handle a form of rescue they had not done before. The chief himself hopped in his bright red “Chief” vehicle and headed for the lake ahead of the fire truck. Ice rescues were rare in these parts. By this time of year, you could normally drive the Hook and Ladder Truck across the ice, but for the last few years the winters had been unusually warm and the ice unusually weak. The chief had been half expecting something like this to happen on this unseasonably warm winter day.

So just as Elmer was being dragged, pallet by pallet, away from weak ice by Knute, and just as Fred had stopped flailing, and switched to the strategy of floating quietly on his back as he waited to die, strongly regretting that he had given up smoking just a month before, two firemen were hustling to develop a rescue strategy from their vantage point in the nearby parking lot.

“Get that boat,” yelled the chief, pointing from a position about 20 feet onto the lake. He was referring to an overturned 14 foot row boat on the back (or front, depending on how you define it) lawn of a nearby cabin.

The men raced towards the boat, not far away at all, grabbed it and slid it towards the black ice as fast as they could. The chief caught up to them dragging a large coil of hemp rope, and ordered them to momentarily stop. He tied the rope to the metal loop on the front of the boat, and tossed the coil skilfully across the ice back towards shore, and waved the men onwards. As the boat slid closer to the black ice, the chief ordered Henry Roy, the smallest of the two, to get in and lie flat on the bottom, to distribute his wight, while the other fireman and the chief shoved the boat out onto the black ice as hard as they could. In seconds, the boat crashed through the ice and there was now clear water between the rescue boat and poor old Fred, and a rope payed out towards the shore, which the chief passed to the other fireman, telling him to back off and hold the rope from a position on solid ice.

At this moment, Henry Roy noticed the sound of water pouring into the boat from the back. On inspection he discovered that the owner of the boat had removed the drain plug in the aft gunwale, probably as a precaution to prevent theft of the boat (certainly not to drain winter precipitation out of the craft, as it was already set upside down on cinder blocks). Henry took off his left fireman’s glove and stuffed the thumb into the hole, which slowed the leak enough to make it a lower priority than it had been. This was training. Take the worst aspect of the ongoing disaster and do what you can to lower its priority, then take the new worst thing and work on that. For a moment that had been the boat sinking, and now, it was Fred.

There was a single, broken oar under the boat when it was fetched, and the fireman had tossed it in when they upturned it, so Henry Roy used it to move closer and closer to Fred. Finally, he got close enough, turned the stern towards the dying, freezing man, and signaled his colleagues to hold the rope fast. It made sense to put the smallest man on the boat that needed to slide some distance across the ice to reach the opening in which Fred was trapped, but now it would have been nice to have a larger, stronger man to drag Fred out of the water. But when Henry Roy knelt awkwardly in the freezing water between the stern and the back seat, and grabbed Fred by the jacket with his ungloved hand and his arm pit with the other hand, he found Fred to be very much lighter than he expected, even wet. Still, when Henry Roy put his full strength into dragging the old man into the boat, the stern gunwale came dangerously close to the waterline, and as Fred’s limpish body slid into the fishing boat, a lot of water came in with him. And somehow, the glove popped out of the drain hole, though Henry Roy did not notice that right away.

By this time, there were several more developments. First, Knute had managed to drag Elmer to ice thick enough to hold their weight, then with both men squirming and frog kicking from a prone position, they went ten feet or so farther, and finally the two of them were able to get to their knees and crawl, leaving the pallet behind. They crawled another 30 feet or so, then stood, and began to wander about, shaky-legged and shivering but alive. The air temperature was actually warm enough that Elmer didn’t feel a need to get to a warm place. By this time, realizing that the overall situation was pretty much out of control, the chief had called for more help, and a second fire truck and two ambulances were arriving on the scene.

Also arriving on the scene were the local TV station reporters, with a camera crew. Someone had seen the commotion from across the lake and called the story in to the tip line. Meanwhile, Elmer’s wife, Emma, wondering where her husband was (he had been due home for lunch) had by happenstance turned on the TV to see if she could catch a noon time weather report, just as the cameras were training, a “live Special Report” on her husband being escorted to an ambulance where he would be stripped down and wrapped in silver Space Blankets.

“Darn it,” she might have thought. “Why haven’t they invented cell phones, so I would not have to be the last person to know about this!”

Fred was now out of the lake, which meant that the chilling effect of contact with water (which conducts heat very well compare to air) was reduced, so the threat of hypothermia was less than it had been. But the air was cold, his clothing was wet, the boat was 20 percent full of water, and for some reason, appeared to be sinking, so he was still very much at risk of drifting into the ultimate sleep of sleeps. And just as Henry Roy realized that his glove must have fallen out of the drain hole, he felt the boat lurch as though it had been bumped by something from behind.

After a half second of confusion, Henry Roy realized that his colleagues, the chief and the other fireman, were tugging on the rope, trying to pull it out of the hole in the lake onto the ice. Soon enough, the boat was pushing on the edge of crumbled and cracked ice and slush, but the two firemen could not manage to move it farther. Henry Roy re-stuffed his glove into the drain hole, and moved Old Fred to the back seat to raise bow, and moved aft with the broken oar, which he proceeded to use as a sort of ice pick pulling the boat forward onto the ice.

But, alas, the pulling of two men on one end of the rope and the flailing and stabbing with the broken oar on the other end made for great TV News footage, but did not move the boat more than a few inches. Fred, meanwhile, sank off the back seat onto the bottom of the boat, sitting in the icy water, and began to curl up to sleep. If he was not soon stripped down and Space Blanketed, in a warm ambulance, this would be his last fishing trip.

The other firemen and ambulance personnel were several hundred feet along the lake shore watching this, and started to discuss the idea of moving the fire truck to a different location to deploy the winch and cable, to drag to boat out of the water. Just as they started to take action to put this plan into effect, Ollie Olsen had an idea. Ollie had returned to the scene of the rescue after making his call, then stopped into Sadies Eatery to ask the three or four customers if they happen to have blankets in their cars that he could take to the rescue scene. Being Minnesota and Winter, they all did. Joe Patterson had the wool felt blanket his father had brought back from World War II. Mary and Duwayne Lundstrom had an old double knit quilt and a pretty new poly-filled comforter in their back seat to keep the kids warm, as the heater in their old buick was on the fritz. There were two or three other blankets as well, and Ollie collected them all up and drove back to the lake. He watched the chief and the firemen with the boat for a while, and observed the ambulance guys taking Elmer into their care, realizing that they had ample blankets and he had wasted his time at Sadie’s. And then, just as Fred could be seen sinking to the keel of the stranded boat, and the reserve firemen were slowly heading to their truck to move it over and get the winch working, it occurred to Ollie that he could help in another way.

Ollie stepped down out of the parking lot, sliding off the bank of the lake shore, and picked his way through the rocks and reeds protruding from the frozen lake. He then headed gingerly across the ice towards the chief and his fireman, who were just about to give up on pulling the sinking 12 foot row boat out of water hole in which it was hopeless trapped.

Ollie walked right past the two men at the end of the rope, and arms raised, the giant man sidestepped into the hemp lifeline, pushing it sideways with his hip. Then he reached down and grasped the rope in his giant hand pulling it to his right, and turning half way around, grabbed with his other hand the rope behind him. Then he did a single, slow, gargantuan pirouette to wrap the rope around himself twice The chief and his fireman at first got a bit of rope burn from the resulting tug, then dropped the line entirely, amazed, glancing at each other not quite sure what to do.

Ollie then turned his back to the boat and started to walk. His huge frame obtained nearly a 33 degree angle off the surface of the ice, his knee occasionally touching the slush and snow, as he took one powerful lurching yet very very short step after another, knowing he was being effective by the sound of aluminum boat crunching and sliding against ice and slush. After he had moved four feet he stopped and turned, and seeing the bow of the boat several feet in the air over the edge of the ice, he threw himself forward, landing face first on the ice, a Herculean effort that brought the bow crashing down, dragging the first third of the boat onto more solid, yet still crumbling, ice. Getting to his hands and knees, he crawled, the rope still fast around him and held firmly in both hands, two more feet forward then stood again and walked two more paces. Then, as all present watched in amazement, he twisted around, and for the next 30 seconds, turned more or less in place, like a Paul Bunyan size fishing reel, winding the line up on his body, pulling the line onto himself, maintaining a taught line, sliding the boat ever closer to the two firemen who were now between Ollie and the boat, one on each side of the line, watching, gawking, amazed and relieved.

“If only I had one of those cell phones” might have thought the chief in a different kind of universe, “The kind with a little video camera … this would be totally viral on You Tube.”

Eventually, Fred and Henry Roy were on firm ice. The drain hole in the back of the boat peed a steady stream of chilled water that retraced the route the boat had taken from it’s watery trap. Ambulance crews descended on Fred, wrapping him in wool blankets and bundling him on a gurney. He would be stripped and Space Blanketed out of camera range and away from the peering eyes of the 20 or so gawkers who by now lined the shore, inside the second ambulance, while on his way to North Memorial.

In the end, Fred lived and Ollie was given a Citizen Accomplishment Medal by the County Commissioner. There had already been discussions at the state level about increasing responsiveness to ice-break emergencies, and eventually lake rescues became the responsibility of each county in the state, and municipal fire companies obtained special ice rescue equipment. Today, in Minnesota, if you’re trapped on the ice, rescue teams will be there quickly and will know what to do, and fewer people die than otherwise might. Yet people still do die on the ice every year, because they go where they shouldn’t be and do what they shouldn’t do.

Eventually, cell phones were invented and everyone in this story got one, except Fred, who took up smoking again the very evening of the rescue and died at an old age of natural causes before the good kind of cell phones were available. In particular, Emma got a cell phone as soon as it was possible and gave it to Elmer, who to this day calls Emma whenever he arrives at a lake to fish, summer or winter, to let her know which lake he’s at and when he’ll be home for dinner.

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19 thoughts on “Unless you really know what you are doing stay off the ice!

  1. The river where I’m at isn’t sufficiently frozen yet – but some folks are already on it. With the dusting of snow it’s pretty much impossible to gauge the thickness by sight – you’d just have to whack with a sledgehammer and if it doesn’t break through you might go on and drill a hole to get some idea how thick it is in that particular spot. Personally I just don’t think the risk is worth it. There are some basketball courts which are currently unused and all you need is the fire hose and some rubber tubing to help retain the water long enough for it to freeze – that’ll give you a nice skating surface which you can’t drown on.

  2. “There are some basketball courts which are currently unused and all you need is the fire hose and some rubber tubing to help retain the water long enough for it to freeze – that’ll give you a nice skating surface which you can’t drown on.’

    You have walleye in your basketball courts?

  3. Another superb piece. Why don’t you stop mucking around and start submitting more pieces for publication.

    Congo diaries? When?

  4. Nice story. Have to wonder the friction of Ollie’s boots on ice though – or there is probably something I miss here.

  5. Esa, good question. I have no idea how Ollie pulled out the boat. But the true story is that a big guy (that I named Ollie) pulled out the boat that the firemen could not manage. I made up all the details about him turning into a fishing reel and stuff to try to make it seem plausable, since it really did happen but like you I couldn’t imagine how.

    Maybe he was wearing crampons!?

  6. Maybe because Ollie was bigger (heavier) he had more friction?

    Too many of these stories end up with more people dying than originally fell in.

  7. He was closer, so he was pulling up on the rope. That added part of the weight of the boat to his weight which reduced the down force on the boat and increased it on his feet.

    If he had grabbed a few handfuls of gravel or sand from the parking lot that might have helped too.

  8. Recalls my days of working seismic in Northern Canada in the winter; after three straight months in the bush, driving out at the end of March, and facing the prospect of either an hour drive straight across Slave Lake or 14 to 16 hours of banging around it on torn-up bush roads.

    I took the direct route, but out in the middle of that lake, miles from land, feeling the ice sag beneath a 3/4 ton pick0up while meltid water hissed around the tires….

  9. When I was young and dumb, one time I went ice skating on the Des Plaines river when the ice was so rotten my equally dumb partner and I had to keep moving because the ice would break under us as we skated along, leaving behind us a trail of cracked ice.
    When I was 26 (a few decades ago) a girl with whom I had much in common–worked at the same place, same age, lived in the same city–went out on thin ice on lake Michigan with her boyfriend. The boyfriend was found drowned immediately, but the girl not for a couple of months. I don’t have any survivor guilt or anything, but it is an odd feeling to have someone with so much in common getting croaked at such an early age. Hey, the good die young!

  10. @greg: No walleye in the basketball courts. Ice fishers are beyond help though – they’re like rock fishers. It’s a dangerous activity but it can be done without too many incidents, but people have to know the ice. I see it as being like hunting; given the large population of part-time suburban hunters the really stupid accidents are hardly surprising. How do skating accidents compare with ice fishing accidents though?

  11. MadScientist — well, I have heard of someone whose throat was slashed by an ice skate, but that’s sort of a freak accident. Of course, add hockey to the mix and you get a whole suite of bodily injuries that can transpire — even before you add the element of “pond hockey on an unready pond”.

    Snowmobilers and skiers also fall through into unready lakes. An additional complication there is the sport of riding a snowmobile across open water. It does work — if you keep going fast, you will stay afloat. But it doesn’t take much of a mistake to start sinking, and it all goes rather quickly from there. There’s usually at least one each winter.

  12. What’s most amazing about this story is that there wasn’t any safety equipment stored around for just this sort of situation. I grew up skating and ice fishing on lakes, and every lake would have a stash of stuff at one end (usually near wherever people would park their cars). Old fence boards, a few blankets, a first aid kit, some rope, maybe even an old sled. All the people using the lake would know where those things were, and even as kids we were taught about how if someone went through the ice you had to tie a rope around your waist (so that other people could haul you back from a distance), slide out on a board or two to distribute your weight, always send at least one person running for help immediately and if you’re the only person there, run for help instead of running out onto the ice, etc. Not that people actually went through very often (except for some idiot tourists and snowmobile drivers), because we also knew all about testing ice depth with a drill and a ruler.

  13. But you are very young. This event happened in the 1970s. After that, maybe, they stated doing the stash thing, though I’ve not seen that in Minnesota.

    Of course, it is true that Minnesota has two major rivers running through it: The Mississippi and DeNile.

  14. One year, when I lived in Illinois, we had a quality ice storm. Almost impossible to walk or drive on, and emergency rooms overflowing with folks with broken bones from falling. Few days later, ice still on the ground, another ice story, and then a third. By the third we were skipping across the ice, and driving with abandon. No one fell and there were no accidents (exaggeration for dramatic effect?). We had adapted to the condition and dealt with it as the new normal.

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