How thick is thick enough?

By W.W. Matteson | Jan 14, 2021

A Saturday cruise down Route 17 last weekend revealed a festive sight: dozens of winter recreators scattered across the frozen reaches of Sides Pond in Rockport. Several ice fishing stations were the nodes for various people sliding and skating between them. One young adventurer was on ice skates, propelled along with the help of a giant kite — wind skating? — I don’t know the name of the sport but I am hooked already. The scene instantly made me happy because it featured a community of people having outdoor fun together. I simply love the feeling of being out on the ice: that daring thrill of knowing watery death lurks inches below your feet. Cold beer on a colder afternoon as the blue sky blushes pink. I wanted to be out there.

But the scene also caused me anxiety. Here was my oldest fear. Falling through thin ice. We haven’t had too many truly cold days yet. Hadn’t these people seen White Fang? When I was a kid, a scene in that 1990s classic gave me nightmares: the protagonist plunges through thin ice with his dogsled team. The corpse they are transporting ghoulishly pops out of his casket, adding a touch of the macabre to a scene that would have scared me well enough.

I have real life reasons to fear thin ice. A tragedy struck my neighborhood when I was seven. A friend I now hardly remember went through thin ice behind his family’s home and drowned. This was my awakening to the sad truth that even little kids can die. The ice was now a thing to be feared and respected. And that frozen corpse face always loomed beneath it.

Later in childhood, I could be coaxed out on the ice if enough people were already out there demonstrating its soundness. There is a very particular thrill that comes with taking that first step and finding the surface holds your weight. It is the thrill of going where you can’t always go, of walking on water. I have fond memories of skating with friends and neighbors outside on bitter cold days. Later, when I started living in Maine, I got to know the pleasures of a day spent ice-fishing. Part of the enjoyment was knowing that I was facing down fear. Part of it was the brisk pleasure of choosing to be out in the elements when you could be sitting warm on the couch. But did I ever truly trust that hard surface suspending me above the icy depths? Not really.

I remember the first time I attended the U.S. National Toboggan Championships at Camden and reveled among the tailgaters camped out on Hosmer Pond. Fires on the ice. People everywhere. It was everything I loved about rock concerts right next to everything fun about a day of ice fishing.

But that was deep in February. And I remember feeling confident that it had been solidly cold for a long time. Still, part of the fun was defiance of death. It was fun but was it smart?

One day last winter I was holed up in a Bar Harbor coffee shop one morning and was obliged to overhear an amusing argument take place between a young married couple. The woman was hassling her husband about his recent decision to drive the family pickup truck out on some nearby lake. With a twinkle in his eye, he dismissed her concerns, pointing out that several other trucks were already on the ice, and none of them were falling through. The wife agreed but posed him a simple question. Was even a tiny chance that their family vehicle could be plunged into deep frigid water, possibly killing him, and definitely destroying one of their most valuable assets, ever really worth the risk? She inquired calmly if he would gamble so casually with her life. With their child’s. The man squirmed uneasily but maintained that it had been safe. It was a proud local tradition. Later that day I found myself on the ice, in the middle of Eagle Lake, fishing with friends, drinking whiskey and wondering if it was worth the risk.

On New Year’s Day the Warden service asked folks to be careful on the ice, reminding them to bring their own measuring devices and determine ice thickness continually. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has an “ATV and Snowmobile Safety” page which features a chart, produced by the American Pulpwood Association, which lists safe ice thicknesses based on weight. It recommends that two inches of ice is solid for a person on their feet and calls for15 inches to support a “heavy truck.” But the site also stresses that the type of ice can affect these measurements: “This table is for clear, blue ice on lakes. Reduce the strength values by 15% for clear blue river ice. Slush ice is only one half the strength of blue ice. This table does not apply for parked loads.” Personally, I add two inches to any of those numbers because I only take the best odds when gambling with death.

Hopefully it’s clear that I am not arguing for a ban on ice fishing or other ice-related activities. I love frozen outdoor adventures as much as anyone else. But I also know that a lot of the things I love — beer, thrills, wind skating — carry real risks of self-destruction. As a person, I am trying to analyze these impulses and share them with my community, which also has self-destructive tendencies. The truth is that winters are getting warmer. And since we have done nothing about that as a society, we are going to have to face some changes as a locality. Winter ice thickness isn’t as sturdy and certain as it used to be. We all need to share in the practice of monitoring it more closely if we want to avoid learning the awful cost of a lost bet.

W. W. Matteson is a writer who lives in Hope, where he weaves tales about Maine's coast and mountains.

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