Larry has some tips to stay safe when venturing out onto ice on your snowmobile
From pleasure rides to bison hunts, snowmobiles have revolutionized backcountry travel in the winter. Sadly, too many people are not at all prepared for the possibility of the many life-threatening situations that can arise. Already this season, a few Canadians have drowned after going through ice that was flawed, or just not thick enough. At least one machine has gone through lake ice here in the Yukon. The rider was OK but a costly helicopter retrieval was needed to get the machine.
Overflow (water on top of the ice and and, until disturbed, usually invisible under the snow) is very common and will bog down a slow-moving or heavily loaded machine. Often another machine cannot get close enough to tow the stuck machine. When you step off your stalled machine, the water/slush mixture is sometimes up to your thighs. You are wet right away and if you can get the machine out at all, it may take many hours.
There are some things you can do to avoid this.
Machines travelling in a line should stay some distance back from the machine ahead. If you are too close together, all of you may end up bogged down. Ideally, the distance between you and the machine ahead should allow you to see the water coming up in the track of the machine in front.
You can also watch for overflow. The first sign is often a sense that your machine is labouring and losing speed. A quick look behind may well show you the gray colour of water coming up into your track. Don’t spend time doing anything except trying to get out of that area. Open the throttle wide and try to make a gradual turn back to where the track is not water-filled. Running parallel to, and not too far away from, the shore will provide you with a shorter distance to get to safety.
I suggest avoiding a run down the middle of a lake, as any overflow may cover a huge area and you won’t know if and where it ends. There is often overflow where creeks flow into rivers or lakes. You can often see that and either go out around it, or go onto the shore.
Thin, unsafe ice is a condition that often exists on Yukon rivers and lakes even when temperatures have been extremely cold. All Yukon rivers have moderate currents. The movement of the water affects the formation of surface ice. The ice can be thick enough for miles and then suddenly become very thin, or even non-existent, without any warning signs.
Many Yukon lakes have locations where the ice is thin and unsafe annually. An example from the 70s was Kusawa Lake near Arc Mt. An airplane on skis put a ski through the ice and was stuck. Three trucks drove down the lake to assist. All three of the trucks went through the ice near the plane.
Not many years ago on Long Lake, in the Aishihik area, a very experienced snowmobiler lost his machine and a skimmer load of gear when the ice gave way in a spot that had traditionally been safe. That’s a long way from anywhere to have all your gear and transportation suddenly disappear.
There is always an element of luck in much of what we do, but paying attention and being prepared will get you more luck.