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Thick ice, deep snow and not a thaw in sight

January 28, 2011
By Joe Hackett, News Outdoors Columnist
Cold and blustery winter weather continues to wrap the region in a heavy blanket of snow, while solid ice has secured a thick cover over area lakes. Following another week of plummeting temperatures and continued snowfall, Saranac Lake reclaimed its title as the “Nation’s Icebox” when the mercury bottomed out at minus 37 earlier in the week. However, a few disgruntled Lake Clear residents have staked claims for a square right to the title, since the weather reports are measured at the Adirondack Regional Airport, located in Lake Clear. To the delight of students, and likely teachers as well, it was so cold the Saranac Lake Central School system was forced to close school on Monday. Unfortunately, the weather was so uncomfortably cold that there was little opportunity to enjoy outdoor recreational pursuits. Despite the deep freeze, ice fishermen report that most local lakes still retain a heavy layer of slush on the ice surface beneath the deep snow. Experienced hands advise wearing heavy rubber boots for protection from the watery mix. It may seem odd to find standing water on top of the thick lake ice, especially with the recent low temperatures. However, that condition often occurs when the weight of snow cover sinks the ice and water seeps up through the cracks. While the thick ice remains sufficiently safe for travel, the snow cover insulates the water from freezing and slush occurs. It makes walking difficult, and can add 10 pounds of weight, when it adheres to a pair of cross-country skis or snowshoes. Slush can also ice up a snowmobile’s tracks and bog down the machines, especially at low speeds. A far greater danger occurs when the surface water begins to flood back through the cracks in the ice, and a spider hole occurs. Spider holes can enlarge over time as water drains back into the lake. They can weaken the ice over a large area, while snow cover continues to conceal the threat. I once stepped through a spider hole in the ice on Lake Placid and fell in up to my hip. It was over 100 yards off shore, but fortunately only one leg went through. I was quick to roll away from the hole for a good distance before standing up. But, the incident impressed upon me the dangers of lake ice. It also emphasized the importance of carrying ice picks, which I didn’t have with me that day.  With a soggy leg and a boot full of cold water, I made it back to shore. It was a wise lesson well learned, and picks are now standard winter gear whenever I’m on the ice.

Snowmobile accidents continue to claim lives The dangers of ice and snow are always compounded when mixed with an element of speed. Sadly, the current season has recently been plagued with four fatalities in just nine days, according to records at the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP). The fatalities occurred in Lewis and Oneida counties in the southern Adirondacks. There are about 11,000 miles of snowmobile trails in New York and over 130,000 registered snowmobiles. Increased outreach and educational initiatives have combined with more effective grooming practices and safety standards in recent years to bring about a steady reduction in the number of snowmobile fatalities. A total of 10 snowmobiling fatalities were reported across New York last year, down from the 14 deaths that were reported during the 2008-09 season. The deadliest sledding season occurred in the 2002-03 season when 31 riders died. The recent string of snowmobile fatalities in Oneida County has raised the total number of people killed in snowmobile accidents to six fatalities statewide, only a month and a half into the new season. The total may soon increase with news that indicates a snowmobiler is still missing and believed drowned on the St. Lawrence River near Hogansburg after his sled went through the ice last weekend. On Wednesday, police had called off the search. His sled was discovered in the river by members of the Hogansburg Akwesasne Volunteer Fire Department Dive Team, but by Tuesday the dive team had discontinued the search for a body due to the very swift current under the ice. I spoke with Jim McCulley, President of the Lake Placid Snowmobile Club, for some insight on this season’s rising toll. “It’s already been a long season down there, they’ve had enough snow to open the trails (in Oneida County) since December,” McCulley said. “I’m curious to know how many of these accidents involved sleds going through the ice. “You’ve got to remember, sleds are getting faster and you’re driving a vehicle which offers very little protection, just like a motorcycle. You’re going to get thrown, and most trails are wooded.” McCulley cited a list of dangers that included a combination of speed, limited protection, loud exhaust pipes, visibility issues and the lack of a requirement for sleds to have mandatory mirrors. “Have you ever tried to look behind you to see what was coming, when you’re wearing a full face helmet?” asked McCulley. “It’s a lot easier if you’ve got mirrors, but they aren’t considered mandatory equipment.” Regarding alcohol use, which many consider synonymous with the sport, an industry spokesperson explained, “It’s unfortunate that some people believe it is acceptable to drink and ride. But you have to realize, most trails don’t go to museums or playgrounds. They stop at restaurants, where people go to warm up. Quite often they ask riders to eat in the bar, not in the dining room with the regular dinner crowd. It happens.” Modern sleds, which can achieve speeds in excess of 100 mph with the press of a throttle, can be dangerous for even the unimpaired. As most people know, alcohol use impairs judgment, coordination, vision and reaction time. McCulley was in agreement with everyone I spoke with on the topic, when he explained, “More frequent law enforcement would eliminate a lot of this behavior. There are simply are not enough DWI checks at night. Without the enforcement, it will never stop.”

Northern Challenge Fishing Derby returns to Tupper The Northern Challenge Ice Fishing Derby has been scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 5. Sponsored by the Tupper Lake Rod, Gun and Sports Club and the Adirondack Regional Federal Credit Union, the Northern Challenge is possibly the region’s largest and richest fishing derby and one of the area’s most popular winter events. It draws a large crowd of hardwater enthusiasts and numerous spectators, who enjoy the camaraderie of the family-friendly event. Throughout the day, participants compete for over $33,000 in cash and prizes, which include two 2011 four wheelers. The event features the largest total payout of all the Adirondack-based hardwater derbies, with hourly awards for the largest northern pike.  It is hosted on Lake Simon, just off Route 30 at the Tupper Lake Rod, Gun, and Sports Club. Pre-registration is advised, at a cost of $35 per angler. A current New York fishing license is required for all participants. State ice fishing regulations apply for this catch-and-release event. Participants are advised the state Department of Environmental Conservation will be on site checking for licenses and helmets on ATVs and snowsleds.  For further information, visit



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