Oakland Press: Safety guidelines and life jackets can prevent some tragedies

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Sen. Mike Kowall

Sen. Mike Kowall

By Sen. Mike Kowall
15th Senate District

Michiganders know how to make the most of our state’s long winters. Despite the sometimes bone-chilling temperatures, we love to get outside and enjoy our state’s incredible beauty.

Some of us like to take hikes through the woods. Some are a little more adventurous and take to snowmobiling, downhill skiing, or cross-country skiing. Some of us get out on the ice and skate or fish.

Our recent harsh winters have extended the winter recreation season. This has been especially true for ice activities, as more lakes and greater portions of the Great Lakes have frozen over, and for longer periods.

This past winter has been an exception. It was a milder winter with less freezing. Recent warmer temps have brought relief for many of us looking forward to spring.

But warmer temperatures can also bring danger to those enjoying the great outdoors in the winter.

We were reminded of this sobering reality yet again when an Oakland County father and his four-year-old son died in early February after falling through ice while fishing on a small lake northwest of Detroit.

Tragedies like these deaths should never happen. We should enjoy Michigan’s natural beauty during all seasons, but we must do so with caution.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reminds us that ice strength can’t be determined by its look, thickness, the temperature or whether the ice is covered with snow. And when the temperatures start to rise, ice also can thaw during the day and refreeze at night, making the ice weak and unsafe.

The DNR has provided ice safety tips for our excursions onto frozen waters. These include:

•    Ice conditions vary from lake to lake. Find a good local source — a bait shop or fishing guide — that is knowledgeable about ice conditions on the lake you want to fish on.
•    Purchase a pair of ice picks or ice claws, which are available at most sporting goods stores.
•    Tell a responsible adult where you are going and what time to expect you back. Relaying your plan can help save your life if something does happen to you on the ice.
•    Clear ice that has a bluish tint is the strongest. Ice formed by melted and refrozen snow appears milky, and is very porous and weak.
•    Ice covered by snow always should be presumed unsafe. Snow acts like an insulating blanket and slows the freezing process. Ice under the snow will be thinner and weaker. A snowfall also can warm up and melt existing ice.
•    If there is slush on the ice, stay off. Slush ice is only about half as strong as clear ice and indicates the ice is no longer freezing from the bottom.
•    Wear a life jacket and bright colored clothing.

These are just some of the many tips the DNR offers. For more ice safety tips, visit their website. Since the next several weeks could bring sub-freezing temperatures and refreezing waters, it is important to keep this information in mind.

The final tip listed above is of particular importance to me. It should go without saying that when venturing out on the ice, one should wear a life jacket.

In Michigan, we require children under the age of six to wear a personal flotation device (PFD) when riding in the open area of a boat. In addition, anyone being towed in the water behind a boat must wear a PFD, and everyone is required to wear one when riding, driving or being towed behind a personal watercraft.

But there are no similar requirements for those venturing out on the ice. Legislation will be introduced in the Michigan Senate that will correct this oversight. The bill will be similar to PDF requirements for boating.

The four-year-old Oakland County boy and his father were not wearing PFDs when they broke through the ice in February. Requiring the wearing of PFDs on ice could help prevent similar tragedies.

This column first appeared in the Oakland Press. Senator Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, is the Michigan Senate majority floor leader. He serves the residents of the 15th Senate District, representing western Oakland County.