Get out, but not on Lake Michigan

Published 9:13 am Thursday, March 13, 2014

“The smaller dot on the lake is a person. It was hard to  believe someone would take such a risk for a photo.” (Photo by Joshua Nowicki)

“The smaller dot on the lake is a person. It was hard to
believe someone would take such a risk for a photo.” (Photo by Joshua Nowicki)

ST. JOSEPH — Ice cover on the Great Lakes has reached nearly historical levels, with 92 percent of the five lakes covered as of March 6, according the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In fact, Lake Michigan reached a record breaking 93.29% last weekend, the most since 1973.

Living on the edge of that lake, residents don’t need any statistics to tell them what they can see their our own eyes—there is a lot more ice on Lake Michigan that there has been in decades.

However, those who wish to get an up-close look at that ice would do well to heed the advice of Petty Officer 3rd Class Zachary Mason, of the U.S. Coast Guard Station in St. Joseph.

“If you don’t have to go out on the ice, don’t,” said Petty Officer Mason. “It is a huge risk to go out the ice at this time of year.”

While the concentration of ice reaches 100 percent in some northern spots on the lake, according to maps developed by NOAA, that figure is only 10 percent for the ice along the Michigan shoreline from roughly South Haven to the Indiana state line.

Despite these low ice concentrations, the ice can be very thick in some areas, lulling more adventurous souls into a false sense of security. After all, many people walk out on Lake Michigan with no adverse consequences whatsoever.

A few weeks ago, hundreds of people ventured out onto the ice near Grand Haven. While most had no trouble, at least six people had to be rescued—three who fell through the ice and three who fell off of the pier, including a child who broke her leg.

Many factors can cause the strength and thickness of the ice to vary considerably within relatively small areas. Temperature changes, water currents, wind and even unseen waves can weaken the ice.

“A big wave can weaken ice that was safe yesterday,” said Bob Pratt, co-founder of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project in Ann Arbor.

The shelf ice on the lake is often hollow underneath. Areas around rivers or channels, such as that between the two piers in St. Joseph, are particularly dangerous.

“I have seen people walk on the river channel.  Water is moving under the ice, and it is very unstable,” said Joshua Nowicki, a local photographer who has become well-known for his photographs of the St. Joseph lighthouses. “On windy days, the ice moves and shifts.”

While one might imagine Nowicki fearlessly trekking over the lake to capture his stunning shots of winter’s effects, he is in fact very cautious.

“With regards to going out on the lake ice itself, I generally stay away from it,” Nowicki said. “When I am on the ice, it is never on a river channel, near the pier, or more than about five yards from shore.”

Nowicki credits his cautiousness to an incident that occurred in his youth.

“I fell through the ice—luckily only up to my waist—on a small pond not far from home and remember how painfully cold it was to walk home.  As a result, I do not want to repeat that experience,” Nowicki recalled.

When he does walk on the ice and pier, Nowicki takes certain precautions, many of which are also recommended by both Petty Officer Mason and Pratt.

“Before I go outside to take photos along the lake in the winter, I always check the weather reports and radar to get an idea about the way I need to prepare,” Nowicki said, noting that he wears a winter wetsuit under his coat and ice cleats when shooting on the pier.

Both Pratt and Officer Mason suggest wearing a life jacket and warm clothing while walking on the lake.

Pratt explained why a life jacket is so important.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about how long you can survive if you fall through the ice. If you have flotation, it’ll be about an hour before you succumb to hypothermia,” Pratt explained. “The experts use the ‘1-10-1’ rule.”

The 1-10-1 rule is an easy way to remember the typical effects of being submerged in super cold water.

“For the first minute, your breathing becomes uncontrollable. Without flotation, you’ll drown. After that first minute, you’ll get your breathing under control, and you’ll have about 10 minutes of purposeful movement,” Pratt explained. “After 10 minutes, you’ll need help being rescued. Then, hypothermia takes about an hour or so before it becomes life-threatening.”

Officer Mason also recommends taking a ship-to-shore radio or cell phone out onto the ice—if one must go out at all. The Coast Guard monitors channel 16.

“If you’re in trouble, we’ll come out and get you. We are trained and ready to respond,” Petty Officer Mason said. “You should also let people know where you’re going.”

Even when Nowicki walks on the pier, he takes precautions.

“Ice cleats are a must for being on the pier in winter. The ice cover on the pier is very uneven and quite slippery,” Nowicki said. “I have frequently seen adults bringing children out on the lake ice and pier.  This is very dangerous and taking an unnecessary risk.”

A helpful guide to safety on the ice is available from the Ohio State University Extension at

However, as the guide points out, “The only absolute safe ice is the ice you stay OFF.”