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Sunday, March 19, 2006

On thin Ice

Despite weeks of warnings, Sgt. Greg Williams just knows folks will keep going through the unstable thin ice of Lake Simcoe.

This week, two retirees bent on fishing for tasty perch drove their pickup truck right into a big pressure crack five kilometres off Sutton at the lake's south end.

"They didn't have a hut," said Williams, who heads York Region police marine unit. "I guess they were just going to drill a hole and drop a line from their truck.

"Now they've got to figure a way to get the truck hauled out of there."

Since Saturday, half a dozen other vehicles have plunged through thin ice on the lake from Keswick north to Fox Island. All occupants escaped unhurt.

Ice-fishing operators were busy dragging their huts off the lake this week to beat the annual March 15 midnight deadline when all huts must be removed.

"It's really nasty out there," said Terry Taylor, who joined friends on ATVs to pull his personal hut back to shore in wind that gusted to 90 km-h, whipping snow that stung like buckshot.

"It wasn't a good year anyway," said Taylor, 40. "On a scale of one to 10, it was probably a one.

"We had a late start, the conditions were bad and the fishing, well, it was no hell for me."

Conditions were so bad that Greg Haines, co-owner of Bonnie Boats in Jacksons Point, didn't even bother to put his huts out — for only the second time in more than 50 years.

"It didn't get safe soon enough," he said. "We would have only got three weekends and that's just not enough to make it worthwhile.

"But some fishermen don't want to give up. It's a disease with them, I guess."

Four people have died on the lake this year. Two motorcyclists drowned last month when their bikes plunged through the ice northwest of Keswick in the middle of the night. A passenger survived the accident and was able to clamber up onto the ice.

Two other people died last month when their snowmobiles collided on the Holland River.

"We always get people going through the ice, so we're always prepared to get people out," Williams explained. "We'll get you out, but we don't get your vehicle."

Since most insurance policies don't cover such accidents, the cost of driving through the ice, coupled with salvage costs, can easily tally $50,000 or more.

"Plus, you could lose your life," Williams said.

Police get a satellite picture of the lake every four hours and glimpse huge sheets of ice, sometimes two kilometres wide by three kilometres long, floating free.

"People just aren't paying attention when we say, `Stay off,'" Williams said. "They're risking their life for a fish. It's safer to buy one instead."

The lake is "fantastic" if the ice is safe, said Williams, but this winter it hasn't frozen everywhere.

"We look for the hard blue ice that's really thick. But it can also freeze in layers with water in between. At this time of year, when the sun beats down and the weather is warm, it crystallizes the ice.

"It's thick but it won't hold any weight. So you might be on good blue ice and then take two more steps and down you go."

People in vehicles are taking even greater risks.

"If you're in a truck, you actually create a wave under the ice," he explained. "The faster you go, the bigger the wave and it tends to pop the ice up, so you make your own hole and drive into it.

"That's far too big a risk now."

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