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Staying safe on solid ice

March 25, 2011

Everyone knows a story in which someone crashes through the ice and narrowly escapes with his life. “I did that when I was young and almost didn’t make it,” says Thomas Coon, Vice-President of the Cree Trappers’ Association in Mistissini. “I was inexperienced and foolish.” He and a friend had been travelling by Ski-doo in the spring. “The ice gets tricky with the movement of water, and we had travelled one way over the lake, but took a shortcut coming back,” he recalls. Coon broke through the ice, but his friend had a long pole and was able to reach him so he could pull himself out. The experience points to a larger problem, he says. “People forget to check the ice before they go out.” And not everyone is as fortunate as the young Coon – the icy waters have claimed lives.

With well over forty years of experience in the bush, Fred Tomatuk knows how important ice awareness is. “I saw the last dog teams, so I learned a lot of the old ancestral ways of traveling, when people traveled on ice to put food on the table,” he recalls. Tomatuk, an Eastmain-based member of the Cree Trappers’ Association, absorbed the traditional Cree knowledge from these early mentors, and today provides workshops and seminars on ice safety on the Eastmain River and the James Bay coast for the Cree Youth Council and other groups. Each winter he begins his observations by noting how the ice forms in October and November. Then he continues to track its development; for instance, he takes careful note of the tides on the James Bay coast, including storm tides, when there is more water seepage through the ice. “If you have a January storm, water seeps through the cracks, spreads like a big lake on the flats of the coastal area, and freezes. The more storm tides you have, the thicker the ice will be.” Then, as spring – and the goose hunt – approaches, he monitors rainfall: lots of rain means slushier, weaker ice and a greater need for caution.

In the springtime, as winter’s grip slowly lets up and the ice thaws, travel across the frozen surfaces of rivers, lakes or the coastal regions of James Bay becomes more risky and treacherous. Safety precautions include picking the best routes across ice, the best time to travel, and the best means of traveling.

“I rely on the routes the old guys would take with the dog sleds, the ones they knew were safe,” says Tomatuk. “I’m not going to change the routes just because I have a 500 cc skidoo underneath me. I don’t take shortcuts.” Along the James Bay coast, Tomatuk recommends travelling over the flats, especially at low tide when the ice is practically sitting on the flats and is not lifted by water. “If you know when the lowest tides are, you can travel on the ice when it is sitting on the flats and is not lifted by the high tide,” he says. He also advises following cracks in the ice along the James Bay coast. “Every island has a crack leading into the mainland from the island because of how the ice fluctuates,” he says. “If there have been a lot of high tides and cold periods over the winter, the area around the crack will be safer than on a normal sheet of ice because every time the water seeps through it freezes, making the ice thicker.”

River travel presents different challenges, especially as water beneath the ice can be flowing quickly. Where the river is shallow, the ice thaws much faster than where it is deeper. Again, the traditional routes are best. “I always have a chisel that I use for observation,” says Tomatuk. “If you want to test out the ice, jam your stick or chisel into it. If it goes through, then don’t bother travelling further.”

Many of these same concerns apply to lake travel, says Coon, who also advocates following the traditional, proven routes across lakes and using a pole or chisel for testing ice conditions. “If you hit the ice with the pole, the sound will tell you if it is touching the water, and if it is thick enough,” says Coon. “So hit the ice hard. If it sounds hollow, the ice isn’t touching water, the water is moving, and it isn’t safe.”

Once you know the best routes to follow, you also need to think about when to cross the ice. “I never travel into the evening,” says Tomatuk. “I go out in the morning and into the day, when it hasn’t warmed up too much. And sometimes during the day you have a little small freeze you take advantage of that to get to your destination.”

Finally, how do you travel? Most people use snowmobiles, but too many are tempted to overload their machine, says Tomatuk. In addition to properly loading the snowmobile, he also advocates towing long (14-18 foot) traditional Cree wooden sleds behind the snowmobile. “So if your snowmobile goes through the ice you have a chance to crawl back out of the water,” he says. “And from April, I put a canoe on the back, attached to the sled with knots that you can undo easily if your sled goes through the ice. If I’m traveling with my wife and kids, they ride in the canoe. That’s the safest way.”

Traditional Cree ice safety knowledge has served Tomatuk well – just as being aware of the dangers of ice travel is the best way to avoid crashing through the ice yourself. “You need to prepare yourself properly when you go on the ice,” says Coon. “The minute you don’t think of an accident, that’s when it happens.”

Related link:
Drowing factsheet for Eeyou Istchee