RALPH BARTHOLDT: Don’t risk your life on thin winter ice

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T.S. was a wing, pretty good on skates, brazen.

For a 140-pound flier on the local hockey team, T.S. liked to push the limits.

So it wasn’t surprising the night he was caught skating on thin ice on the lake below the library in the town where I grew up.

I was notified by word of mouth. No cellphones then, and I walked under streetlights to a friend’s house where T.S. sat wrapped in blankets and warm clothes to offset hypothermia after they pulled him from a hole in the pine-fringed lake.

A blond kid with skin as pale as a summer moon, he looked blanched when I saw him by the stove, like he’d seen a ghost.

His teeth were chattering still when he said, “That water’s cold,” and forced a smile.

Thin ice is the devil and not worth messing with.

As a kid I learned that the lake where we lived had taken several lives in winter.

A family of four — mom and dad and kids on snowmobiles — went through and were recovered later, the lot of them. None alive.

My dad was a county coroner and, I think, he laid them out for autopsy in his dreams, like many coroners do.

I heard that story for decades from my mom, who wasn’t known for hysterics. She recalled the tale each time I fired up the sled with its assorted bric-a-brac of hooks, flashers, an auger and spools of last year’s monofilament. A bucket of shiners sloshed on the bench seat between my legs.

I putzed onto the lake and carefully recounted springs and seeps that might be there even though the ice most winters was as deep as the yarns I heard at the Township hall, and a bear to auger by hand.

My pal, Boggsy, went through the ice by a beaver house.

We had walked a mile or more from a road to a pond to set conibears, packing long-handled hatchets to cut the ice and some poles for the traps.

We both knew that the ice at the leading edge of a beaver lodge, where the orange-toothed mammals came and went, was often thin. Wearing Air Force surplus extreme-cold-weather trousers and a wool jacket, pac boots and his youthful grit, Boggsy ventured out anyhow.

The air was sharp as a snapped twig and the snow hung glassy as hoar frost from trees.

When he went through the ice, steam rose as if from a hot tub.

He bobbed in the 9-foot-deep pool slapping the water, his face an inflated balloon until I laid a beaver-chewed pole before him and pulled him, panting, back to shore.

As we walked through the birch and pines to the pickup truck his teeth chattered, he moved in staccato fashion, his clothing was a glazed doughnut. We cranked the cab’s heater the entire way home.

Most of us who grew up around them know that frozen lakes in winter are a beauty to behold and alluring. But winter lake ice is nothing to mess with.

Years later, on another frozen lake, Boggsy and I once again walked on ice to check a beaver set.

This one, just as the other, was a trap attached to two poles beneath the ice in a beaver’s run — the path from the lodge to its food supply, a pile of floating brush.

We were farther from roads then, 20 air miles, and the distance, and our age I suppose, had made us more cautious.

We caught a beaver in that trap, and after resetting it, and sitting down in the snow for a cigarette, maybe — this was long ago — we recounted the youthful experience of years earlier.

Canadian biologist Farley Mowat, in a book called “Never Cry Wolf,” writes of a time he fell through the ice of a remote northern lake. Directly beneath the ice, he wrote, is a 2-inch layer of air.

If you break through and go under, it’s difficult to find the hole, he wrote. If there’s a current, you may miss it by a few feet when you come back up.

Don’t panic. Use the thin layer of air, suck oxygen and look for the light coming through the hole that you made. Move toward it.

If we venture on ice in winter, let’s hope that we’ll be cautious enough to never have to do what Mowat advised.

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