With the early arrival of arctic temperatures, ice has already formed on many of Northern Michigan’s inland lakes and rivers. The Department of Natural Resources reminds ice fishermen and snowmobilers of its mantra: No ice is safe ice.

“Just because a lake or stream looks frozen doesn’t mean the ice is safe,” said Lt. Andrew Turner, marine safety and education supervisor for the DNR Law Enforcement Division. “By following some guidelines on how ice looks and feels, you can avoid your day of ice fishing ending in a life-threatening incident.”

According to Turner, you can’t always tell the strength of ice simply by its look, its thickness, the temperature or whether or not it is covered with snow. New ice, he said, generally is much stronger than old ice; a couple of inches of new, clear ice may be strong enough to support you, though a foot of old, air-bubbled ice may not.

“Clear ice that has a bluish tint is the strongest,” Turner said. “Ice formed by melted and refrozen snow appears milky, and is often 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.

Turner said anglers should be especially cautious in areas where air temperatures have fluctuated. Any newly formed ice that is created after a cold front moves through should be regarded with caution. A cold snap with very cold temperatures quickly weakens ice and can cause large cracks within half a day. A warm spell may take several days to weaken the ice. When temperatures vary widely, causing the ice to thaw during the day and refreeze at night, the result is a weak, “spongy” or honeycombed ice that is unsafe, he said.

Anglers also should bear in mind that ice weakens with age, and late in the season, when it turns dark and gets honeycombed, it’s time to quit for the season. A cold snap sometimes halts the deterioration, but honeycombed ice never will refreeze to its original strength.

The DNR does not recommend the standard “inch-thickness” guide used by many anglers and snowmobilers to determine ice safety because ice seldom forms at a uniform rate.

Three or 4 inches of ice on a shallow farm pond with no inlets or outlets, for example, cannot be compared to the same amount of ice formed over a river with strong current, or to ice covering the bays of the Great Lakes, where ice cover always will be more fragile, Turner said.

Deep inland lakes take longer to freeze than shallow lakes. Ice cover on lakes with strong currents or chain-of-lakes systems also is more unpredictable.

“Always presume that ice is unsafe,” Turner said. “Do not venture out onto the ice unless you test the thickness and quality with a spud or needle bar or an auger. Ice that is 6 or 7 inches thick in one spot can be only 2 inches thick close by.”

On the big lakes, ice cover in some spots may be thick enough to safely hold a car while other areas of ice are little more than an inch thick. Conditions can change within just a few feet because of currents under the ice. Be especially careful around pressure cracks. When the currents are stronger, the ice gives way to open water.

Ice near shore tends to be much weaker because of shifting, expansion and heat from sunlight reflecting off the bottom. If there’s ice on the lake but water around the shoreline, proceed with caution.

Avoid areas with protruding logs, brush, plants and docks. These structures can absorb heat from the sun, thus weakening the surrounding ice. Also avoid aeration devices, such as bubblers used near marinas.

“I personally would never recommend that you take a car or truck onto the ice,” Turner said. “But those are personal decisions. I would urge that anyone wear a life jacket, wear bright colors and take a cell phone when walking onto a frozen lake or river. Also, bring along a set of ice picks or ice claws, which you can find in most sporting goods shops.”

If you do fall through the ice, follow these safety tips:

  • Try to remain calm.
  • Don’t remove your winter clothing. Heavy clothes won’t drag you down but instead can trap air to provide warmth and flotation. This is especially true with a snowmobile suit.
  • Turn in the water toward the direction you came from—that is probably the strongest ice.
  • If you have them, dig the points of the picks into the ice and while vigorously kicking your feet, pull yourself onto the surface by sliding forward on the ice.
  • Roll away from the area of weak ice. Rolling on the ice will distribute your weight to help avoid breaking through again.
  • Get to shelter, heat, warm dry clothing and warm, non-alcoholic, and non-caffeinated drinks.
  • Call 911 and seek medical attention if you feel disoriented, have uncontrollable shivering or have any other ill effects that may be symptoms of hypothermia (the life-threatening drop in the body’s core temperature).

To learn more about staying safe while on the water or in the woods, visit the DNR website michigan.gov/recreationalsafety.