Hannah Stonehouse Hudson has every reason to be afraid of stepping onto the ice.
But she’s not, even though next month marks the fourth anniversary of her husband’s death. On Jan. 26, 2013, Jim Hudson, 34 and a well-known fishing guide out of Bayfield, Wis., died after the snowmobile he was riding fell through the ice while he guided on Lake Superior.
“A lot of people in this situation would say, ‘I’m never ice fishing again,’ ” said Hudson, who owns and operates a photography business (stonehousephoto.com). “But I love ice fishing more than anything. I basically arrange my schedule so I can fish throughout the winter.”
The key, she said, is staying safety-conscious on the ice. That means having the proper gear, understanding the conditions and not being afraid to trust your gut if something doesn’t feel right. Stonehouse Hudson said her husband “was the king of ice safety.” He wouldn’t let her take ice-fishing photos unless the fishermen in them wore or were using proper safety gear. He’d get angry if people drove ATVs onto iffy sections of ice, and had little time for anyone who simply followed old tracks without checking ice conditions for themselves.
The main reason she isn’t scared to be on the ice is because she never believed Jim Hudson’s death was only about the ice. There were some bad decisions involved, too, which she attributed in part to a lack of sleep because his guiding business had been so busy. While the ice should have been safe where he drove his snowmobile, it wasn’t, and he apparently didn’t stop to check it. Plus, he wasn’t wearing the float suit he normally did, and had removed from his snowmobile an emergency flotation device known as a Nebulus.
“[Jim used to say] anyone can have a bad day on the ice, and anything can happen,” Hudson said. “He talked about that for years.”
The thing to remember, said Stan Linnell, boating and water safety manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, is that ice conditions are in constant flux. He recommended anyone who is atop the ice, regardless the time of year, to carry a chisel, drill or other device to check thickness. In general, the agency recommends at least 4 inches of clear ice before people ice fish and at least 5 inches before they drive a snowmobile or ATV. Eight to 12 inches is enough for a car or small pickup, while 12 to 15 inches is sufficient for medium-size pickups.
“Just pounding on the ice is one thing,” Linnell said. “But periodically drilling or chiseling a hole through the ice will tell you how thick the ice actually is.”
Even then, anything can happen.
When he was in high school, Rob Kimm, now 45 and a resident of St. Paul, fell through what seemed to be solid ice. During Christmas break, he and a friend drove a Suburban onto 20 inches of ice on South Lida Lake near Pelican Rapids. His friend was setting up the fish house while Kimm set about drilling holes around it. He drilled about a dozen and then walked back to the fish house to get a scoop so he could remove the ice shavings.
He walked a little different route on his return and suddenly found himself in the water, having stepped into a spot that wasn’t frozen. Though it was 2 in the afternoon, he hadn’t seen anything that would have warned him of the danger.
“I went all the way in and when I came back up, I couldn’t find the hole at first,” Kimm said. “Then I remembered to look for a different color. That’s how I found the hole, which was full of snow.”
Though he carried ice picks around his neck early in the season, he didn’t have them on, believing the ice was plenty thick.
“I couldn’t get a grip on anything to get myself out,” Kimm said. “Fortunately, the hole was small enough — maybe 3 feet across — and I was able to get myself parallel with the ice surface, get a foot on one side of the hole and straighten out my body and roll out. But if that hole was a couple feet wider, or I hadn’t been able to get a foot up to lever myself out, then I’m really in trouble.”
The take-home message? “On the one hand, it’s a fluke and I just happened to walk into a hole in the ice. But bad spots can happen,” Kimm said. “The saying that no ice is safe is a little clichéd, but it’s true — no ice is 100 percent safe.”
Kimm recalled being clearheaded when he went in.
“I was looking up at the wrong side of the ice and thinking, this isn’t good,” he said. “But you think surprisingly clearly because at that point, there’s really only one thing going on in your mind — get out, get out, get out.”
Trying to stay calm if you do fall through is vital, Linnell said.
“You don’t want your head to go underwater because you don’t want your first breath to be underwater,” he said. “Try to get yourself calm enough that you’re breathing, and then try to get out as fast as possible from the direction in which you came.”
People traveling in a vehicle have other things to think about. Have the door ajar or windows down — or a device handy so you can break a window. Travel at slow speeds and don’t just blindly follow other people’s tracks. If the vehicle goes through, get out as quickly as possible, Linnell said.
“Going through can happen almost immediately,” he said. “Or, there may be some signs. You may hear cracking noises before you go through if you’re in an area that’s just barely able to support you.”
Back on the ice
When Kimm fell through, he was in and out so quickly that his inside layer of clothes wasn’t even wet. Linnell recommended against removing wet clothes. “They’re still providing a layer of insulation. Until you get into some kind of a warm shelter like a car or a house, I would keep your clothes on.”
No matter how much ice there seems to be or how cold the weather has been, Stonehouse Hudson warned people recreating atop the ice against forgoing safety equipment. A float suit and Nebulus for ATVs and snowmobiles top her list.
“If you love someone who loves ice fishing, buy them for that person,” she said. “And don’t be afraid of [the ice]. People should not keep their kids or significant others from going out. Ice fishing is a great thing to do and a great way to enjoy being outside.”
Joe Albert is a freelance writer from Bloomington. Reach him at email@example.com.