On the Ice


(This 988th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 28, 2010.)



Ken Stewart drills into Lake LaSalle ice


A few days ago I joined my friend, biological sciences professor Ken Stewart, on one of his trips out onto the ice of Lake LaSalle at the University at Buffalo north campus. Stewart measures the thickness of the ice at a dozen spots on the two man-made ponds every five days through the winter.


This was quite different from an earlier mid-summer trip when we rowed out onto Conesus and Honeoye Lakes to take plankton samples and measure light penetration and water temperature.


That day was warm; this one was cold, the temperature in the teens. But there was only a light breeze and I had on my usual half dozen layers of clothing so I was quite comfortable.


It was a weekday and classes were in session so students had better things to do than watch a couple of old men pulling a toboggan out onto the ice. That made for a feeling of isolation. It was as though we were off in the wilderness, not another person in sight.


Despite my wife's misgivings about this adventure, there was clearly no danger involved. Stewart is extra careful, however. He didn't make me wear a life preserver but he did have me loop a cord over my shoulders with screwdrivers on each end. "If you did fall in," he said, "those would help you pull yourself out onto the ice." I wore them, feeling a bit silly.


Stewart had fallen through the ice himself years ago when he was a graduate student in Wisconsin. I asked him if he was helped back out of the water. "No," he told me, "I was alone." I could imagine the fright he must have felt: his clothing getting waterlogged, cold beginning to penetrate, the ice unwilling to support his now still heavier body and hypothermia a threat even if he did get out. Fortunately, he was able to pull himself onto the ice and hike back to safety. On his next trip, he told me, he pulled a boat across the ice.


Shortly after the north campus opened two students ventured out onto the ice of Lake LaSalle and broke through. Fortunately, their misfortune was observed, the police were notified and they were quickly pulled out. That episode and the tragic deaths of the law students who tried to cross Lake Erie on the ice have contributed to strict regulations against walking across these lakes.


That is, I think, unfortunate, because today youngsters think of ice rinks as indoor facilities and rarely have an opportunity to skate outside. Thus, I was pleased to see that three small areas on the lakes were being cleared for broom hockey contests. The administrative sponsors had worked with Stewart in preparing for these events and they joined us briefly to have the ice checked at one of their rinks. At nine inches the ice was safe to hold not only the skaters but the plow that would scrape the snow off the ice. In the middle of the lake the ice measured over thirteen inches, the thickest Stewart had ever found.


Ice thickness is not, however, the only thing to consider about safety. After a warm period of several days ice gets what Stewart described as mushy. Then it is far less safe no matter what the thickness. I recall that kind of ice when I was a teenager. We continued to skate on it even when it was covered with an inch of water.


As we made our way between ice borings, I thought back to my own family adventure in Ellison Park outside Rochester. We had been tobogganing and were walking back to our car. The path led along Irondequoit Creek and my brother talked my dad into crossing the creek on the ice. My mother demurred, of course, but I joined their trek. In midstream the ice began to crack under my dad and I remember my brother calling, "Pop, lie down." My father would have no part of that and promptly broke through. Fortunately, the water was only about four feet deep and he crashed the rest of the way across. My mother's only response was simply, "Oh, Walter." That was enough.-- Gerry Rising