Juneau’s fickle winter is prompting lots of warnings to stay off lake ice. And on Saturday, Capital City Fire and Rescue and the Forest Service will hold ice safety training at the Mendenhall Glacier.
Events this winter at the glacier show just how unstable ice can be.
Rocks are sliding off Mount Bullard, Mendenhall Glacier is constantly calving, and Juneau has been in a freeze/thaw weather pattern for weeks.
The natural events that happen just tend to make that ice very unsafe.
Capt. Dave Boddy says it could even be a lethal combination.
Boddy is a first responder when someone falls through the ice in Juneau, a place with lots of lakes and ponds and opportunities to venture out during the winter.
He also understands the events that make ice unsafe.
Like a recent rockslide down Mount Bullard near popular Nugget Falls.
Forest Service Naturalist Laurie Craig first spotted it late last week through the telescope in the Visitors’ Center observatory.
“This is just so obvious on the landscape, which is just sort of speckled with white and dark, and there’s this huge gash just right down, sliding down Bullard mountain,” and onto the ice, Craig says.
Another Mount Bullard landslide in late November actually created a tsunami under the ice.
University of Alaska Southeast Geologist Cathy Connor says this year’s freeze / thaw, rain/ snow cycle is compounding Mount Bullard’s rock slide activity.
“If you dump water into rock fractures and then freeze it, it acts like a hydraulic jack. So you do that over a lot of seasons for a long period of time, it doesn’t take much to set it off,” Connor says.
Then there are the ice bergs. Naturalist Craig often sees skiers and skaters approaching the beautiful blue bergs, though like the glacier, those bergs are always on the move.
“So even though they’re frozen into the lake, there are still changes happening because they are thawing underneath the lake ice in the water,” Craig says, “because there’s still a current flowing.”
So what do you do if you ski into an open hole of water under the snow and fall through the ice?
That’s one of the questions Capital City Fire and Rescue’s Captain Boddy and Captain George Reifenstein will answer during Saturday’s workshop.
“What are you going to feel? How long do you have that you muscles and your body is continuing to work and kind of do what you want it to do and what are the best techniques for either getting out of the hole or staying alive in a hole until somebody gets you,” Reifenstein says.
The water under that ice is likely to be in the mid to low 40s this time of year.
With the recent warming trend, Reifenstein says there are about 3 to 4 inches of slush on Juneau-area lakes. The ice underneath varies in thickness.
“I was auguring Auke Lake over the weekend and under the slush there was probably five inches of ice in the place that I augured,” he says. “But over at the glacier near the Visitors’ Center we went down through a foot of ice, under 4 inches of slush.”
Capital City Fire and Rescue’s ice rescue team was formed in 1992. Reifenstein and Boddy have been training and teaching others about ice safety ever since. Boddy says people often assume Mendenhall Lake ice is really thick because it’s in front of the glacier, but that’s not the case.
“One of the biggest fears we have is the instances that have traditionally happened in other parts of the country where people fall through the ice and other people try to go out and rescue them and they end up becoming victims themselves,” Boddy says. “That’s one thing we’re really trying to avoid is compounding the situation by getting more people stuck in the ice.”
Saturday’s ice safety training will start inside the Visitors’ Center and include video from Canadian researcher Dr. Gordon Geisbrecht, also known as “Dr. Popsicle” for his cold water immersion studies.
Then the Juneau team will move outdoors for an actual rescue from an icy pond next to the Visitors’ Center. The guinea pig from CCFR will be wearing an immersion suit. That’s usually not the case when most people fall through the ice.
Saturday’s ice safety training begins at 1:30 p.m. at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors’ Center. The event is free.
(Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story said the event begins at 11:30. It actually begins at 1:30 p.m. The story has been updated to reflect the actual time of the event.)
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