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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Winter fishing is on thin ice

February 9, 2008

For a dark, frozen moment, Eugene Rafuse was sure he was going to die.

Cracks in the ice - first one, then many - had risen in front of his snow-grooming machine as he drove over Lake Simcoe with his son, Kyle, then 15. Gunning the engine, Mr. Rafuse almost got through the danger zone when the weight of the ice-fishing hut he was towing proved too much. The groomer was pulled into the frozen water.

Kyle scrambled out of the cab, then plunged underwater. Someone thrust the handle of an ice auger through the broken ice. Kyle grabbed it and was pulled free. Eugene, however, found himself at the bottom of Lake Simcoe under four metres - 14 feet - of water and 15 centimetres of ice.

"You can't explain it. It's just terrifying," Mr. Rafuse said a year after the icy plummet.
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The Globe and Mail

He thrust himself toward the surface, hit the ice with a thud and started swimming, only to realize he was going the wrong way. By the time he turned around, he was running out of air. "I started blacking out. I knew I was going to go. I didn't even know where the hole was," he said.

Then someone on the surface - Mr. Rafuse still doesn't know who - saw his arm pass under a gap in the ice. The stranger grabbed his arm and dragged him out. "Another split second and I was drinking water," he said.

It was -20 and that stretch of ice had been solid as a rock the night before. The incident rams home a safety call being made across the province: Don't assume the ice is safe.

Indeed, this week, Bancroft police identified two college students who died when the minivan they were travelling in last Saturday broke through the ice on Kamaniskeg Lake, south of Algonquin Park.

Paul Sanders, 24, of Mitchell, Ont., and Vancouver student Janine Lieu, 22, were trapped in the van as it sank. Their two friends, fellow students at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy in Barry's Bay, on the north shore of Kamaniskeg Lake, escaped and sought shelter in nearby cottages. Ontario Provincial Police divers recovered the students' bodies on Monday.

Mr. Rafuse's near-miss and the students' tragedy highlight a new danger brought on by changing climate patterns in a province where frozen lake water has traditionally been used as a transportation route by snowmobilers and others.

The ice on Lake Simcoe has become so unreliable that the annual Yamaha-sponsored Ice Fishing Championship, based in Manitoba with competitions in Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario, has delayed its Ontario event. This year, the Keswick competition on Cook's Bay will start on March 1, a month later than usual.

Event organizer Larry Bosiack said ice across the country is changing. What used to set like concrete now has inch-thick layers as soft as butter. Last year's event at Lake Simcoe was near open water.

Ice depths on lakes across Southern Ontario are thinner than in decades past. Warm spells and late freezing times have shortened ice-fishing seasons in recent years, and changing conditions make ice hard to read, according to lake residents and commercial operators.

At Lake Simcoe, the most heavily winter-fished lake in the province, the average duration of freeze has dropped from 84 days a year in the 1990s to an average of 81 days this decade.

In the warm winter of 2001-02, most of the lake froze for only 34 days. Some areas didn't freeze at all.

While this year is better than that strangely warm winter, it is still far behind the ice-laden days of the 1960s when three or four feet of ice would cover the water's surface.

Currently, the sheltered spots below Georgina Island and in the lake's south have about a foot of ice, but elsewhere it is too thin for safe fishing, said Rocky Madsen, tournament director of the Canadian Ice Fishing Championships, to be held on Lake Simcoe's south shore on Feb. 23 and 24. He's hoping for a prolonged freeze to thicken the ice cover in the meantime.

"This is the third [year] in a row with less-than-desirable ice," he said. "It's February and we're still not out properly on the main part of the lake."

December and January are the critical months for ice formation on Lake Simcoe, locals say. At -10, lakes can form an inch of ice overnight. The ice can be maintained at -2. By February, Lake Simcoe usually starts losing a bit of ice each day, and by March, safe fishing is a day-by-day assessment. This year's first freeze came in mid-December, but a warm spell soon sent anglers back off the ice.

Farther north, Lake Nipissing's fishing season started on schedule at the turn of the year, but the lake has less ice than usual.

These warm winters could be a glimpse of what is to come, said Daniel Scott, a University of Waterloo professor and Canadian Research Chair for Global Change and Tourism.

By 2020, such "bad" warm winters are likely to become much more frequent, he said. That won't be the end of ice fishing, but commercial operators may have a harder time making ends meet.

"With ice fishing and snowmobiling, there's not much you can do. You get what Mother Nature gives you," Dr. Scott said.

For those heading out on the ice, Andrew Emsley of Dave's Fishing Huts, based in Jackson's Point, said clear ice - which looks black because of the water underneath - is safest, and at 25 centimetres thick can hold a car. White ice contains air and slush, and needs to be about 43 centimetres thick for safe driving.

Anglers should also beware of pressure cracks that form when the lake ice expands and moves. "We monitor the ice every day, but other people come out and wander about everywhere. They think ice is all the same," Mr. Emsley said. "They're the ones we worry about. Snowmobilers are the worst. They'll zip along anywhere."

Despite shorter ice-fishing seasons and thinner ice, he said the sport is gaining popularity. Big sporting retailers are offering cheaper equipment and locals continue to head onto the ice in droves.

For Mr. Rafuse, the near-fatal crash to the lakebed kept him off the ice for about two weeks, but the full impact of the incident didn't sink in until the following summer, when he dove into the water for a swim with his son. As soon as his head went below the surface, he was plunged into a vivid flashback.

Now, he always checks the ice and stores two cans of Spare Air in his snow-grooming vehicle. The foot-long bottles of air are usually used by scuba divers in case of emergency, and were presented to Mr. Rafuse as a Christmas gift from his family. He hopes he never has to use them.

"I think of it every morning I go on the ice," he said. "I give the lake a lot of respect now. Much more. ... You just don't know how much you appreciate that breath of air you take every day until you can't find the next breath."

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