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Apparent safe ice can be most dangerous

February 8, 2017
By JUSTIN A. LEVINE - Outdoors Writer ( , Lake Placid News

Nine people fell through the ice on area waters last weekend. Nine. And two of those folks are never going home again.

Early Saturday morning, three men went through the ice of the Raquette River in Tupper Lake. They were on a four-wheeler and two snowmobiles when they broke through. Luckily for them, another member of their party stopped short of the ice, and he and a bystander were able to get the three men out of the water. They were treated and released at the scene.

On Saturday in Saranac Lake, a man and woman fell through the ice near the Lake Flower boat launch. Firefighters were nearby due to the heavy traffic of Winter Carnival kickoff and managed to rescue the pair quickly.

Article Photos

A state police helicopter hovers over the bodies of two men who died after going through the ice on snowmobiles in Tupper Lake last weekend. Forest rangers and a state police dive team used air boats to recover the bodies.
News photo — Justin A. Levine

Later Saturday night, a man on a four-wheeler went through the ice on Oseetah Lake outside of the village. The man self-rescued several times and was able to get to shore, remove his wet clothes and warm himself up. But while he was doing that, a woman went looking for him on her own four-wheeler.

She also fell through the ice and was rescued by the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department early Sunday morning.

"She was hanging onto a four-wheeler," Saranac Lake fire Chief Brendan Keough said. "It was basically vertical, but the two front tires were keeping it on the ice shelf. It was running, and she had her feet on the bottom rack of the four-wheeler. She was in the water a little above her waist. She had been there a long time and was very cold.

"I was losing hope we were going to find this person out there," he said. "She had been out there so long, but we weren't going to give up until we found something. Luckily, she got one cell phone call out. She called a friend who called 911."

And while all this was going on, two brothers from near Buffalo who have a camp in Piercefield apparently fell through thin ice on Raquette Pond in Tupper Lake while snowmobiling. The brothers' bodies were found early Monday. Both died from drowning.

The brothers, Stephen and Edward Sattler, were reported missing by family Sunday night after neighbors at their camp noticed they hadn't returned to the camp. Another official said the brothers were snowmobiling on the ice and likely didn't realize that they were on unsafe ice near open water.

Although these incidents were on different water bodies at different times of the day, they all had one thing in common. They all went through ice that was not safe to be on.

The three men crossing the Raquette River were on their way to the Northern Challenge Ice Fishing Derby on Lake Simon, where the ice was more than a foot thick. More than 1,400 people, along with hundreds of ice shanties, snowmobiles and four-wheelers were safe on the solid ice of the lake.

But less than a quarter-mile away, the ice on the river was only a few inches thick. Across town in Tupper Lake, the Sattler brothers rode their snowmobiles too close to the channel of moving water that has claimed other lives in the past.

And in Saranac Lake, the moving current of Lake Flower (which is actually a dammed river and has moving water year-round) can keep the ice thin at the boat launch. A few hundred feet away in Pontiac Bay, workers were carving blocks of ice for the palace that were about 13 inches thick. And the woman rescuers found was near the Lower Locks, again where flowing water moves all year.

The Department of Environmental Conservation warns fishermen to be on the lookout for bad ice, but others need to heed that warning as well. Ice around the edges of water bodies, over moving water and near underwater springs can be dangerously thin, even if the ice a few feet away is safe.

"Ice thickness, however, is not uniform on any body of water," the DEC's ice fishing page says. "Remember, your own good judgment is essential! Since ice thickness can vary on a lake, check the ice periodically to stay safe."

The DEC has an ice thickness safety chart, but that guide is based on clear ice on non-running waters. And many of the area's waterways are moving water. Even if that water moves slowly, it still creates a hazard.

"Slush ice is about 50 percent weaker. Clear ice over running water is about 20 percent weaker. Double the recommendations for white ice," the DEC says. "Many ice anglers do not like to fish on less than five inches of ice, and do not like to drive a pick-up truck on less than 15 inches of ice."

The Canadian Red Cross tracks deaths from snowmobilers going through the ice, and tallied almost 400 in a 20-year period in that country. It found that the vast majority of these deaths were preventable.

Anyone venturing on the ice in winter should check the thickness in multiple spots. In addition to checking the ice, one should always leave an itinerary of where you are and when you expect to be back and carry self-rescue tools like ice picks. It's not a bad idea to strap on a life jacket under your outerwear too.

For more information on snowmobiling on ice safely, go to



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