Trail Dispatch – Falling through thin ice


Coordinates: 69.41.118 N, 74.07.384 W
Distance Traveled:
18.42 mi / 29.64 km
13 °F / -10 °C
Wind: 0 MPH / 0 KPH
Cloud Cover: Full sun

Simon calmly turned around to me and said, “They should not be out there. They are going to sink.” I looked behind me to see Stetson and Ed Viesturs mushing out onto the lake we had just reached. Simon and Lukie’s sleds had been the first to arrive at the lake and the two men had cautiously ventured out onto the ice to check it with their harpoons. They returned with an ominous look on their faces that said we would be skirting the edge of the lake instead of crossing it. The past six days of full sun and temperatures hovering just below freezing had taken its toll on the ice and remaining snow.

Just now, however, the word about the thin ice hadn’t reached back to Stetson’s sled. I turned around and motioned to them with my arms that they should get closer to shore. Stetson called “Haw Haw!” to his lead dogs and Whisper and Jones responded immediately turning the team towards shore and bringing Stetson and Ed to safer ice.

Simon and I continued on the ice, hugging the shore. The shrinking snow-cover on the land had exposed lots of sharp rocks that would damage the soft plastic shoes on Simon’s runners if he mushed over the tops of them, so he decided to stay on the ice, but stay close enough to the shore to be safe.


This plan was working well until we reached a small inlet and, instead of hugging the shore, Simon’s lead dogs tried to cut across to the opposite bank. We heard a ripple of cracks spread out from under our sled and then felt the sickening feeling of the sled punch through the ice.

Simon yelled to his dogs to pull and the dogs tried, but they soon plunged through the thin ice as well. The top of the sled floated just above the surface of the water.

Simon crawled over to the shore where Lukie and the other sleds were stopped. Quickly Simon and Lukie grabbed a long rope. Simon crawled with the end of the rope back to the sled. He tied the end of the rope to the front of his sled. Lukie untied his dogs from his sled and tied them to the other end of the rope. Lukie’s dogs, still on solid ground, were able to pull our dogs and our sled towards shore. The sled plowed though the ice like an ice breaker, leaving a trail of open water behind it.

Finally the sled drew close enough to shore that I could jump off and help pull the sled to safety. We unpacked the sleds to assess the damage. Will, Simon and Sam’s gear was wet. We spent an hour or so wringing out water and spreading clothing out to dry on warm, dark rocks. We then repacked the sled and started again down river.

A few degrees of temperature difference can make a huge impact when those degrees cause a phase change in water. Water is either

ice or it is liquid and the change comes quickly when the temperature starts to warm. My brief plunge through the ice made me


think about caribou and other animals who rely on ice for travel. I have seen video of caribou trying to migrate over thinning ice and falling through. I have also heard of caribou whose young calves are swept away by strong currents in rivers that, in the past, would have been still frozen during the caribou’s migration.




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