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I fell through the ice today.

When I was a kid in high school, I read a short story by Jack London called To Build A Fire.  For those of you unfamiliar with it, the story describes a nameless man in the Yukon, a newcomer who has never experienced the cold of the Frozen North.  He travels in temperatures below -70 degrees across a frozen lake or pond, accompanied only by a large husky, and he constantly dwells on the incredible cold and the numbness it induces.  He ultimately dies after falling through the ice, frozen, unable to build the fire he so desperately needs to stay alive.  It’s a very good story.  But it doesn’t do the act justice.

I knew I was in trouble before anything really happened.  Ice freezing on a large body of water makes very strange, almost alien sounds.  A low frequency thump that sounds more like a whale’s song than any other sound I know of, that echoes under the ice and through the waters below.  As you walk on it, it pops and snaps occasionally, bending under your weight, protesting but holding solid.  The sounds of the ice tell you a lot about where you are, the stability of the thing, and reminds you to be wary of your surroundings.  You get used to them and eventually tune them out.

But not this one.

I heard a loud CRACK, almost like a gunshot heard from far away, that didn’t echo.  Just that.  CRACK.  I froze.  I listened.  The feint crackle of slowly breaking ice and snow.  And I knew the ice core I had taken fifty meters back wasn’t right, at least not here.  The ice was too thin.  I had to get away, follow the same path I took in back out on my hands and knees, like they taught me in my ice safety training course.  I would have turned and done exactly that, had the ice not given away under me.

Being under an ice sheet is like entering another dimension.  It’s not dark like you would expect it to be, but bright.  The ice somehow intensifies the light coming through it.  It would be painfully bright, if you could see, but the water is so cold it feels like I imagine hot coals would feel.  The water immediately below an ice sheet is about 34 degrees Fahrenheit, less than 1 degree Celsius, and plunging into it unexpectedly was like being punched in the chest by a heavyweight boxer.  Like being kicked by a horse.  It sucked every bit of air out of my chest and would have left me gasping, if my throat hadn’t suddenly tightened and blocked my airway.  I should have been grateful that I couldn’t breathe, but in that moment, my one thought was to get back up through the hole, and out of the water.

Fortunately, my coat and snow pants were very buoyant, and my head was only under the water for a moment.  I immediately rolled onto my back, floating belly-up in the water, coughing first, then yelling, not out of fear, but to keep my lungs working, to force my throat to loosen so I could breath normally and stop coughing.  Coughing in near frozen water can cause you to inhale the stuff, freezing your lungs and resulting in a quick death by drowning.  I yelled, first obscenities, then nothing in particular, as I bobbed in the water.

I waited until I had calmed down.  You can’t get out of the water if you’re not calm.  You will thrash, and scream, and break more ice, but you will waste your energy, and you will die.  So I waited and took stock of the situation.  It was sixty meters to the edge of the beaver pond, and another twenty to my truck, which was still warm from the drive and contained my thermos, a towel, a blanket, and a change of clothes.  If I could get there, I would be okay.  But as I waited for my breath to steady, for my shivering to be caused by the cold rather than shock, I couldn’t help but appreciate the very real danger I was in.

It’s easy to write about now.  At the time, though…  I don’t think I can fully describe the fear.  Training and knowledge are supposed to help you overcome it, and they did to an extent.  I knew what to do.  I knew to wait until I was calm.  I knew to keep on my back, to maneuver to the edge of the hole when ready, to pull my body up as far as I could without using my arms, to kick as though I were swimming while shimmying forward onto the ice, to immediately roll as far as I could in the direction I came from so as not to break the ice again, to get warm within twenty minutes before I became incapable of doing so without help.  But it’s hard to keep your focus on logic and training when you are surrounded by a cold so deep and penetrating that you can’t imagine what warmth feels like.  The recognition that my life could soon be ended was very real, very sobering, and very, very frightening.

Obviously, I got out.  I did the beached whale shimmy up onto the ice and rolled on my sides the full sixty meters to the edge of the ice, through the snow.  I trudged the remaining twenty meters back to the truck.  I stood in the snow and stripped down to nothing, dried off with the towel, and changed clothes in the warm cabin of my truck.  By that point my fingers were so cold that they would barely cooperate, and I warmed them with a cup of hot chicken broth from my thermos while I warmed my core under the blanket.  When I felt comfortable enough, I drove back to my basecamp, and my colleagues eventually returned after finishing their own surveys.  They laughed at my story.  It’s all a memory now.  The event itself is just a jumble of images, sounds, and sensations.  But I do remember being scared, and when I do, my chest tightens slightly and my pulse quickens.  I suspect that fear will stay with me for a while, and I know it will affect how I approach my work in the future, but it’s slightly exhilarating, knowing how close I came to an awful ending, yet I came away unscathed, with a new story of something that most people will never experience.  It also makes me appreciate more the things I have in life.

Sorry this entry doesn’t keep with my usual theme, but this is weighing pretty heavily on my mind.  I will resume the usual theme on the next post. Until then, stay warm, dear readers.

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3 Comments

  1. What a terrifying experience. Amazing post – I could really picture every second of it and I’m so impressed you were able to stay calm and get yourself out. I hope you’re ok!

    • Thanks very much!! But it may seem more intense than it really was. From the first person, it was terrifying. But when I imagine it from the third person, see myself floating in the water, the whole thing seems trivial. Just a guy in a hole, rolling in the snow. It’s all about perspective, I guess.

  2. No sorry needed. Thank you for sharing your amazing story. As I read your words it played in my mind like a bit of cinema. I realy liked the description of how bright the icy layer makes the water.


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