I am such a paranoid mother that I often lay awake worrying that my daughter will get into an accident while driving. You’ll understand the depth of my paranoia when I tell you that my daughter is still in elementary school.
So it may shock you to learn that last Sunday, two days after the tragic drowning, I took my daughter ice skating on Donner Lake. Pretty much in the middle. With a friend. And the dog.
We met up with my husband who was there playing hockey, as he has almost every day for the past two weeks. We had a great day.
Before you call Child Protective Services, allow me to explain my point of view, which is radically different from many of those being expressed around town and in the paper these days.
The first and most important point I want to make is this: A lake the size of Donner can have open water in one area, yet be frozen ten inches thick and be entirely safe in another.
Open water at one location does not mean that everyone who steps on the ice in other locations will fall through. If a lake is spring fed, or very windy, a portion of it may not freeze despite the rest turning to thick ice.
Chief Keller wrote in a previous column that the “subtle warming trend changed once-stable ice into a death trap.” This statement is incorrect, but can be explained by one of the chief’s later statements. By his own admission, he wrote, “I am the first one to tell you that I am not an expert on ice.”
I understand that Chief Keller is in the unfortunate position of having to rescue people who fall through the ice. But his views and fears come from the fact that he is not very familiar with lake ice, nor does he have much day-to-day experience on it.
Those folks who skate every day do. They know that despite the warming daytime temperatures in the few days preceding the drowning, most of the ice sheet on Donner Lake continued to thicken at the rate of about an inch a day. This can happen because nighttime temperatures were still very cold, and once ice begins to form, its contact with the water encourages the formation of more ice. This time of year, with short days and the sun angle still low, it takes much more than a few warm afternoons to melt thick ice. As a matter of fact, in the five warm days since the drowning, the lake ice has continued to thicken.
The victim did not fall through deteriorating ice. He fell through newly-formed ice that had never been thick to begin with. None of the locals had skated anywhere near it ” they considered it out of the question.
The victim made a number of other critical errors. First, he broke the cardinal rule of lake skating, which is to never, ever skate alone. Second, though he was an avid skater, he was obviously unfamiliar with the nature of lake ice and mistakenly assumed that if one area was safe, the whole thing was safe. He didn’t talk to the local hockey players who were skating that morning on seven inches of very stable ice. Third, he was wearing circus-type stilts, attached to skates, which I’m guessing greatly impeded his ability to kick and stay afloat for more than a minute.
I am greatly saddened by this man’s death. But I am incredulous that this incident is being used to insinuate that all lake skating is unsafe and that all skaters on the lake are incredibly stupid. Most of the skaters you see out there every morning have been skating lake ice for years. They take ropes and a large inner tube out on the ice with them. They know how to check the thickness of the ice, and they know how many inches it takes to safely support a person, a team, or a car.
I’d like to commend Corporal Richner of the Truckee Police Department for coming to the lake on Sunday morning and asking us questions about ice safety and how to determine the thickness of the ice. Thank you, Corporal, for choosing to understand the situation rather than to criticize it.
Lake ice will always carry risks, and it’s not for everybody. If it scares you, then please don’t go near it. If you are unfamiliar with ice but want to feel what it’s like to walk on it (the dangerous “lure” effect that Chief Keller referred to), please don’t go near it. If you feel you know everything about ice and think there’s no chance you’d ever fall in, then you’re way too cocky ” please stay away.
But if you respect the ice, have experience with it, examine it carefully, determine its thickness, always skate with other people and have the equipment to do a self-rescue, then lake skating can be a truly wonderful experience.