JUNEAU - For many Juneau residents, a winter wouldn't be complete without skating on Twin Lakes or skiing across Mendenhall Lake.
Are you skating on thin ice? 010709 NEWS 2 CCW Associate Editor JUNEAU - For many Juneau residents, a winter wouldn't be complete without skating on Twin Lakes or skiing across Mendenhall Lake.

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Following in the tracks on others is one way to help ensure you're skating on good ice.

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The ice on Twin Lakes in the winter can be quite inviting, but find out if it's thick enough before you start skating. Early in the winter, the ice is likely to be strong black ice but it's crucial to check for ice thickness and strength before setting out on new ice, according to Mark Scholten, who has been monitoring Juneau's ice for more than a decade.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Story last updated at 1/7/2009 - 10:51 am

Are you skating on thin ice?

JUNEAU - For many Juneau residents, a winter wouldn't be complete without skating on Twin Lakes or skiing across Mendenhall Lake.

And though no outdoor ice is 100 percent safe, Capt. Dave Boddy with Capital City Fire Rescue said the department receives only a few ice rescue calls each winter, many of which turn out to be false alarms.

Are all the people out on the ice lucky daredevils or are they doing their best to minimize their risk?

It's more likely the latter, especially if they listen to Marc Scholten, who has been studying Juneau's ice conditions for more than 10 years.

For local hockey players and skaters, Scholten is the go-to guy for ice conditions. He has played hockey outside since he was a boy and as an adult started paying serious attention to ice and the weather patterns that affect it.

"I'm an observer," Scholten said. "I observe all the time."

In late fall, he regularly drives by Twin Lakes to look for the first ice of the year. When he sees it, he takes his hockey stick and pounds on the ice until it breaks - then observes the thickness. As ice accumulates, he drills to measure thickness.

But thickness is only one part of the equation. Scholten also looks at how many air bubbles are in the ice, as the bubbles drastically weaken strength of the ice.

"Black ice, which is essentially water that is frozen solid, is the strongest ice we have," Scholten said. "When... slush freezes, then you have an ice that is permeated with air bubbles, so that becomes a much weaker ice.The best thing is to break it and look at it and see how much air is in the ice."

When he can jump up and down on the ice without it cracking, he knows it's at least three or four inches thick.

"Normally the standard is four inches to walk on it," he said. "Some (people) will say will six inches to run a snow machine on, 10 inches for a small auto (and) 12 inches for a pickup truck."

But this only holds for solid black ice. Refrozen slush is about a third of the strength of black ice, Scholten said. He estimates that if the ice is half the strength of black ice, you'll need twice the amount of ice to support you.

Skating on thin ice

The areas in Juneau where you're most likely to see skaters are Twin Lakes and Mendenhall Lake near Skater's Cabin. And for good reason: many of the other areas where ice forms around town are far more dangerous.

The easiest way to find safe ice is to look for where others are and follow in their tracks. But

this is no substitute for paying attention to where you are and what the conditions are.

"The first thing (to do) is see if anyone has been out there before you," Scholten said. "If you like to ice skate and things are getting cold, start observing. After a while you can determine (how much ice will accumulate in a given day). If the temps are in the 20's, it's going to put on about an inch of ice a day."

Once out on a frozen lake, look for ice clear of obstacles. Icebergs in Mendenhall Lake and weeded areas in any lake could make for more fragile ice.

"Icebergs will hold in heat and weeds will hold in heat so that will retard ice development," Scholten said. "You've got to stay away from the weeds."

Scholten also discourages against skating on river ice and other areas near flowing water. And as attractive as the face of the Mendenhall Glacier is, the glacier can calve any time of the year and the results can be - and have been - disastrous.

"Just about every other year someone breaks through by nugget falls," Scholten said. "Give those things a wide berth, give them a hundred yards. When you get up close to the glacier face you're going to have more moving water. People really shouldn't be out there, but everyone wants to (get close to the face)."

The areas the fire department is most worried about are small ponds in residential areas in the Mendenhall valley.

"The scariest things for us are these little ponds and sloughs in the residential areas that freeze over that are really attractive to kids," Boddy said. "Those have high potential for something tragic happening. Parents need to be really cognizant of where their kids are playing in the wintertime."

If the ice breaks

So you've monitored the ice, consulted with others and feel pretty safe setting out on some clear, thick still water ice. What other precautions should you take?

"Never skate at night early in the season unless you've skated before during the day," Scholten advises. "Have somebody skate with you. You might put a life jacket on and carry a set of ice picks around your neck (with a rope or string). I've never had to use mine but I've got a pair and I use them in the early season.

"Make sure you and your skating partner are both carrying a cell phone. If one person falls in, the other should call 911 right away," Boddy said.

But the natural impulse often isn't to reach for the phone - it's to reach for your companion.

"When people fall through the ice, especially when other people are around, ... the natural impulse is to try to help them," Boddy said. "What we're trying to avoid is the lemmings rushing to the sea scenario where everyone goes in.

"The first thing is not becoming a victim yourself. If you can reach something to the person (such as a branch, a stick or a rope) you might be able to help the person get out without getting in yourself. Self-rescue is always the best option."

An ice rescue team will come as quickly as possible, but it's unlikely they will be able to reach victims before hypothermia sets in.

"Pretty much anywhere in the borough at this time of year people are going to be pretty hypothermic by the time we get there," Boddy said. "The other thing people need to remember is that even if they get them out, that person may need medical care."

Most who skate or ski on outdoor ice would agree it's worth a small risk to enjoy such a beautiful setting.

Scholten wants to make the most of outdoor ice and help others safely enjoy it as well. When the community can safely enjoy skating and skiing on outdoor lakes, "it's pretty magical," he said.

Katie Spielberger may be reached at