RAY BROOK - With winter in full swing, officials with the state Department of Environmental Conservation remind outdoor enthusiasts to practice safety on iced-over water bodies.
Hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, and skating on frozen lakes and ponds are among the many winter delights enjoyed by residents and visitors of the Adirondack Park.
Nothing can ruin a good pond hockey game like a crack in the ice.
David Winchell is spokesman for DEC Region 5 in Ray Brook. He says the agency offers safety tips, but never comes out and says it's 100 percent safe to be on the ice.
"You never know," he said. "All conditions are different, depending on factors like shoreline seeps, underwater springs, currents, inlets, outlets, bubblers - there's a lot of different things that can effect the safety of ice. The one thing that we always say is check the ice thickness before going out on it. If there's up to three-to-four inches, then it's safe to go out on foot."
Winchell says between three and four inches is safe for human traffic - but the DEC stops short of recommending thickness for motorized vehicles.
Officials say there's no way to be sure when the ice is safe for trucks or snowmobiles, so it's best to air on the side of caution.
"We don't encourage people to take vehicles on the ice - people do, but we're not going to give recommendations on when it's safe to bring vehicles on or anything like that," he said.
The best way to determine the thickness of ice is to pack an ice pick or an auger, Winchell says.
"This early in the season, you could probably take some sort of bar with a point - like a wrecking bar - or an ice axe and just chip through the ice to see what the thickness is," he said.
Like any outdoor activity in the Adirondacks, being prepared is key.
If you plan on skiing in the High Peaks - the Avalanche Pass perhaps - be sure to pack rope measuring at least 50 feet.
Winchell notes that if someone goes through the ice, remember these simple rules: reach, throw, go.
Rescuers should start with "reach" by lying on their belly and staying away from the edge of the broken ice. Pull the person onto the ice by using a tree branch, hiking stick or a ski pole.
Once on the surface, both the victim and the rescuer should roll away from the edge then crawl on all fours until out of harm's way. Winchell then recommends retracing your exact path back to land.
The "throw" step involves using rope to pull the person to safety. Continue pulling the person until they are out of danger.
As for "go," that's the recommendation if rescuers can't risk saving the victim on their own - in other words, go get help.
If you fall through, Winchell says it's imperative to start warming up as soon as possible.
"Immediately move and get back to your car," he said. "If that's too far away, you need to move to shore and possible start a fire. So another good preparation is to have some sort of fire starter with you as well."
Any winter activity, whether on the ice or not, requires the appropriate clothing. That means wool or some sort of synthetic alternative - never cotton, Winchell notes.
"And if you're going to be out there for sometime, you should also consider some sort of portable shelter," he said. "There's shelters similar to tents that you can set up. A lot of ice anglers use shanties to protect themselves from the cold."
Winter anglers often enjoy a nip from the flask while searching for those land-locked salmon - and a cold brew may be refreshing after a rousing game of pond hockey.
But Winchell cautions that even though alcohol may warm your belly, it actually increases the risk of hypothermia.
"The consumption of alcohol can actually make you more susceptible to hypothermia than drinking non-alcoholic beverages," he said. "You may feel warmer, but in reality, you're not."
And although the DEC won't issue recommendations for motorized access to lakes and ponds, Winchell cautions that drivers who break through and find themselves submerged could face steep penalties if the vehicle isn't retrieved quickly enough - especially if it begins leaking fuel into the water.