ESCANABA - Those who ice fish or ride across the ice for recreation become experienced in reading conditions regarding safety. It is a necessity, especially at first and last ice.
First ice usually sets up in early December and amazingly, there is always someone who ventures out to plot a trail of sorts, allowing others to follow. I've always marveled at whoever this person is. They do it year after year and when optimum thickness is nowhere to be found.
It is either with extraordinary skill and/or nerves of steel they traverse out over deep water with just a few inches of frozen barrier between them.
By mid-January, Little Bay de Noc resembles an Alaskan village with what appears to be over a thousand fish shacks scattered in all directions and mostly concentrated on the northern end.
As spring approaches and warmer temperatures prevail, we start seeing problems increase. Even more than first ice, fishermen and recreational riders encounter areas where thawing has occurred, making spots over current or near the mouths of streams even more dangerous.
Delta County Search and Rescue along with its Dive Team, operated through the Sheriff's Department and working with the Gladstone Public Safety Department and Volunteer Fire Department, have joined with the Ensign Fire Department and Masonville EMS in ice water rescue.
There are approximately 60 volunteer members who are trained through White Bear Rescue in Dunbar, Wis. Collectively, they have put together specialized state-of-the-art equipment for ice water rescue including suits, sleds, an amphibious motor vehicle, all the way to heated trailers for changing and gear storage.
The water suits are similar if not identical to those many have seen on the hit television show "Deadliest Catch."
The heavy rubberized one piece garments are designed to keep the user buoyant and insulated from the cold. There are some newer versions of the design in use with the local team as well. The most recent style are lighter and more body conforming and allows the swimmer more dexterity.
Even though they appear much lighter in construction, they will still support the rescuer and three other people at surface level. The new suits will also keep the core temperature of the swimmer normal for up to 12 hours in 32 degree water.
The team has a specially outfitted Argos eight-wheeled utility vehicle with tracks that can transport a number of rescuers and a patient across the ice.
One man displaces approximately 5 pounds per square inch. In comparison, the Argos craft displaces only .67 pounds per square inch and has a full spine board inside that will hold a person being rescued in a neutral supine position in the event of injury.
The board can also safely support the attached patient if turned on its side, in the event nausea occurs and to prevent aspiration.
To gain access to people stranded in the water, rescuers use what is referred to as a MARSARS board. The device is used by one rescuer, applying leverage to rapidly remove one person from icy water. It is a quick one-on-one deployment device. Most often there will be at least a team of three, working rapid rescue.
There is also a larger inflatable Rapid Deployment Craft that resembles the profile of a large canoe or perhaps even a Viking ship, with high-rising ends.
Most of the ice rescuers are outfitted with cleats to keep from slipping on the ice and the body of the large pontoon is made of sealed Kevlar so the cleats will not damage it.
It can hold up to 12 rescuers and is equipped with paddles. The ends are open and, by design, rescuers can leverage themselves so a 90 pound person can pull a 200 pound person from the water.
Tom O'Brien, Assistant Chief of the Ensign Fire Department, is one of the principal people involved with Ice Rescue. He recently guided me through a practice session where the team cut a large hole in a pond and practiced for several hours.
O'Brien clearly demonstrated that the skill of ice water rescue is more than knowing how to use equipment, the team members also have to understand the effects cold water exposure has on the human body.
"We try to keep every person rescued (absolutely) horizontal and treat them gently to protect against other complications," O'Brien said. "You can actually rescue a person and kill them on the way out.
"The blood from the extremities is cold and acidic. If it moves back into the heart it can cause problems as extreme as ventricular fibrillation. That is why we have EMS nearby in the event defibrillation is necessary or to treat the hypothermia."
O'Brien also advises anyone who ventures out on the ice for recreation should always set a plan with other people who know where they'll be and when they expect to return. It give rescuers a starting point in which to establish a grid for searching.
It is highly recommended that those recreating on the ice wear a personal floatation device. To do so will help keep you afloat and help maintain some core body temperature.
To panic and flail in the water will actually decrease your temperature faster.