Agency: Glacial lake ice 'never safe'

Juneau residents take to Mendenhall Lake despite the danger

Posted: Sunday, January 24, 2010

On the many crisp, clear days this winter, cold temperatures drew residents to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center to skate or walk on the nearby lake ice.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Visitor center interpreter Laurie Craig has watched hundreds of people walk by the small sign the U.S. Forest Service posts at the edge Mendenhall Lake, warning that the ice may not be safe.

A longtime employee of the center who has seen the glacier calve and icebergs roll over "even in the middle of winter," Craig said she believes some residents might not understand the danger.

Others probably choose to use the ice despite the danger, but Craig said many more follow others' examples, thinking if people are out on the ice, it must be safe. She particularly wonders about adults with children.

"Obviously it's very enticing. On a cold sun-shiny winter day everyone's out there," she said. "But the ice is never safe."

The Forest Service does not have the capability to conduct rescues on the lake, said Julie Speegle, Tongass National Forest assistant public affairs officer for the U.S. Forest Service. By the time emergency personnel arrive and act, it would probably be too late to save someone who fell in the lake.

People have been partially submerged after ice gave away, sometimes on several different occasions in one season, Craig said.

Red, wooden ladders are placed in locations around the lake to aid in rescue. They are at the center's downstairs entrance to the elevator, the base of Nugget Falls, the pavilion, the boat anchor at the West Glacier Trailhead and Skater's Cabin.

The agency's official position is that the ice is never safe, Speegle said.

No one in recent history has been killed or seriously injured falling through the ice near the glacier.

Craig used to go on the ice but now thinks it's too "creepy" after seeing the lake surface crack from the face of the glacier to Nugget Falls as the surrounding ice collapsed into a colossal slushy.

Skating fan Karla Hart also has been unnerved by cracks in the ice on the east side of the lake, though it isn't one of her regular spots. Hart skates elsewhere, and always with a stash of gear to make self-rescue more probable.

Hart and several skating acquaintances carry ice picks, also called ice claws. They are wooden or plastic handles with sharp metal points on the end, used to gain purchase on the slick surface of the ice and then haul oneself out of the water.

Hart keeps her tools in her sleeves so she can deploy them with the push of a button that removes a plastic guard. Other models are stashed in a harness on the chest.

Hart carries the ice picks and other safety gear. She suggests skaters carry equipment considered mandatory by a Swedish skating club: a floating aid, a whistle, an ice-pike to check if the ice is thick enough, and a rescue rope in a throw bag.

The club also suggests skaters never go alone and preferably skate with a group of three, including one person experienced in ice rescue.

For more information on ice picks, visit www.nordicskater.com/safety.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.



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