A Natural View: Flirting with Danger

Terry Sprague

These mounds of ice along shore look inviting, but they are very dangerous to explore. (Photo by Ian Dickinson)

[This article appears in the February/March 2020 issue of The SCOOP.]

About 30 years ago, staff with local conservation authorities travelled their area school circuits every year in March with a presentation called the Spring Water Awareness Program (SWAP). The four main warning components of the presentation were thin ice, fast-flowing water, flooded fields, and slippery banks. When I took over managing and delivering the program for our local conservation authority in Prince Edward County, I revamped our entire presentation and included an important element for the area where I live – shoreline ice. The idea came to me after hearing about a group of friends that winter who were wandering along the Lake Ontario shoreline in Prince Edward County, exploring the array of caverns, ice mounds, and miniature volcanoes created by the wave action. They were drawn to the spectacular ice formations, some of them several metres high. One person either broke through, or lost his balance, and slipped into the icy water below, far beyond the reach of his friends. He succumbed to the frigid temperature within scant minutes before help could arrive. I have since heard or read about two other incidents, one of them involving a small child.

As the story goes, a man was walking along the shores of a lake when several boys ran to him shouting that their young friend was in trouble and needed help. The man followed the boys and saw that the children had been playing along the shore and had climbed the ice mounds. He scrambled to the top for a better look and saw that the young boy had slipped off and into the crashing waves. The water was only up to the boy’s waist, but because the wave action had washed out the underside of the ice build-up, there was no way the boy could climb out. The man stretched out on the ice and reached down to the child. The boy tried to reach, too, but he was already feeling the effects of hypothermia and soon slipped away under the water. The man knew he could not get the boy out without going into the water himself, but doing so would mean death for two as there was nowhere to clamber back onto solid ground. The boy soon slipped away out of sight under the ice shelf. Yet another victim.

It seems that every winter we need to circulate this stern message to all those who like to explore these tempting ice formations along the shores of our lakes and bays. Along Lake Ontario especially, wind-induced wave action can build spectacular mountains of ice, some of them containing miniature ice volcanoes that shoot a spray of water with each incoming wave.

In the accompanying photos, we see several adults on a buildup of ice along the shore of Lake Ontario. With them, about seven young children in total. When these photos were taken, there was also a narrow ice bridge that arched from one ice hump to another similar in size. Below, was open water churning with floating pancake ice. Although not depicted in the photograph, one small child had tried to cross over the bridge, but thought better of it and retreated, according to the photographer.

What is really disturbing, are the adults standing beside the children, seemingly oblivious to the danger around them, only a few metres from the open water. One photo depicts a small child kneeling in a sinkhole beside a noticeable fissure. Although difficult to tell, it appears this activity was occurring some distance from shore, over deep water. The photos were taken at Presqu’ile Provincial Park, but it could be a lakeshore anywhere as this reckless behaviour occurs all too often.

The point I am trying to make is that this ice, no matter how thick it appears to be – and at Presqu’ile it was reported to be several metres in thickness – is never uniform, and the ice itself is not solid. It is a buildup of icy spume, snow, and frazil ice that forms a crusty, and sometimes porous structure made unsafe because of the constant wave action underneath. Several metres thick in one spot and barely a crust over the frigid water elsewhere.

These formations and ice volcanoes are spectacular some winters, especially in February and even extending into March, but we must avoid the temptation to take our families and friends out there for a closer look. Park employees at Presqu’ile warn against climbing the formations and ice volcanoes as fragile formations can, and often do, collapse.

It’s not a question if another death will occur; rather, it’s a question of when.

Terry Sprague lives in Prince Edward County and is a retired interpretive naturalist and hike leader. See his website at www.naturestuff.net. He can be reached at tsprague@xplornet.com.

The ice on which these adventurous visitors are standing might be only a few inches thick and very porous and unsafe. (Photo by Ian Dickinson)