The wild ice skating season is filled with ephemeral goals—evenings spent monitoring weather forecasts and satellite imagery hoping to catch days on good ice.
Days like this:
Grewingk Lake is one of the most sought-after wild ice destinations in Alaska. A visit requires driving to the end of the road system in Homer, Alaska, a 45-minute water taxi across Kachemak Bay (weather permitting), and a 45-minute hike to the lake. Visitors are rewarded with towering icebergs embedded in the ice and sometimes the opportunity to skate near the glacier. Tipping icebergs and calving glacier ice are serious hazards, and at least two people have fallen through thin ice in the past three years.
But only one person used a dead rabbit to self-rescue.
Dead rabbit saves the day!
Tony Perelli noticed a rabbit (snowshoe hare) on the ice while exploring the limits of supportable ice near the glacier front. The rabbit had melted a depression in the ice, so Tony concluded that it had collapsed there, warm, and then died naturally.
Tony pointed the rabbit out to Brad Marden, who carried it back to our skating group to show his son Renn. Renn carried it closer to shore, intending to bring it home for dinner. Renn abandoned the rabbit after Brad explained that they couldn’t eat it without knowing why it died.
Later in the day, another group of skaters found the rabbit and Kelsey Haas decided to salvage the pelt. While carrying the rabbit and skating near an iceberg, Kelsey broke through thin ice up to her armpits.
The tips of my ponytails iced up!
Without thinking about it, Kelsey kept a grip on the rabbit while in the water. She swam a few strokes to the ice shelf and swung the rabbit onto the shelf. The wet fur froze instantly to the ice, providing the grip necessary to pull herself up onto the ice shelf.
As soon as she was out of the water, Kelsey sprint-skated to shore to generate heat—nearly a mile in about five minutes.
Once I got to shore, my friends worked like a pit crew! I just stood there and they undressed and redressed me in dry clothing. To be honest, I don’t really remember much of that. We hiked to the pickup, waited 45 minutes for the water taxi, and it wasn’t until I got home that I thought, “Who’se clothes are these?”
Kelsey had spare clothing in a dry bag in her backpack … she ended up wearing some of them, but also a mix of other layers.
Why wasn’t this a scary experience for Kelsey?
My biggest question for Kelsey was, weren’t you scared? She wasn’t. Here’s why.
Kelsey’s team was really well prepared. Kelsey has experience as a guide and ice climber—she knew the hazards of cold exposure and planned for them. The party had thermoses with hot water, a stove and fuel, several sets of warm clothing in dry bags, and a throw rope.
Kelsey recognized that the ice near this iceberg was suspect. A friend was staged in position with a throw rope, just in case. Kelsey was so fast to self-rescue (thank you rabbit!) that the rope wasn’t needed. Another friend gave her a mix of hot chocolate and coffee, excellent kindling to jumpstart the internal furnace.
And I suspect that part of why Kelsey was able to stay so calm was that her face and head never went in the water. This was largely due to the buoyancy of her backpack. I’ll write more about that in a later post.
What to do if you aren’t carrying a dead rabbit
If you fall through the ice, turn around to climb out in the direction that you came in. The ice behind you supported your weight at one point … you don’t know that about the ice in front.
Any extended swimming should be done on your back, keeping your face and airway out of the water.
Ice picks (awls) are a must-have. Kelsey didn’t have them, but I bet she will soon! The picks should be worn around your neck for easy access. Picks provide traction to pull yourself up onto the ice shelf. Once your legs are on the ice shelf, roll toward thicker ice until you can crawl and eventually walk.
I strongly recommend picks that are worn around the neck. Eagle Claw picks are the cheapest option, and good, except that they don’t float (and you will want to slightly bend one pick so that they stay coupled around your neck). I’d pay the extra money for a pair that floats, like these.
A section of floating rope can be a huge help. Rescuers should stay on solid ground or thick ice while throwing the rope to the person in the water. Direct them to place a hand through a pre-tied loop or to spiral-wrap the rope around their arm and kick while you help pull them onto the shelf.
Once you are out of the water, change into dry clothes immediately. Carry dry bags with large puffy jackets and pants. You might need to cut through laces and zippers with a knife or trauma shears. Hot water can do the trick too, but be sure to save enough water for hydrating.
Once you are in dry clothing, warm sugary drinks and easy snacks like sweets and energy bars will help to kick-start your internal engine—heating you from within.
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Luc Mehl is a certified ice rescue instructor. Some rescue exercises are appropriate to do on your own, others should be overseen by a trained professional.