Experts say: Local lake ice is 'never thick enough'
"Ice here will never be thick enough to be safe," Blue Ridge Parkway Chief Ranger Steve Stinnett said.
It is a lesson the High Country learned the hard way last week at Trout Lake.
"The ice is thicker this year than it has been in the past several years, so there may be a perception that it would be safer, but it is never safe on any of our lakes," he said.
Due to the High Country's inconsistent weather, there is always a point where the ice is thin and it is not always obvious, he said.
Blowing Rock Fire and Rescue's Aaron Miller would agree. His department is one of a handful statewide certified in ice rescue. His crew was put to the test last week.
"We wish it had better results," he said.
His team utilized dry suits, which are like wet suits but they keep the water out, to recover the body of Robert Todd, 52. Todd had been walking around Trout Lake with his dogs and son when one of the dogs rushed the ice. Todd followed and fell through to the cold water.
Blowing Rock Fire and Rescue trains for these situations, employing a boat and specialized ice picks, but rescue operations are still extremely rare.
Miller says last week's incident was the first such drowning in at least 20 years and Stinnett has not seen an ice-related drowning yet on Parkway land. With this year's deep freeze, he expects there are many with the mistaken impression local lakes are for winter recreation. Stinnett and Miller could not stress enough how dangerous lake ice is.
If you are in a situation where a companion or pet falls through the ice, there are a few things you can do, officials say.
Calling 911 is the first step in the rescue operation, not jumping in after your friend.
"We understand that you feel you can do it faster yourself, but you're putting yourself in jeopardy. If you go through the ice, you are not helping yourself or the person that you are rescuing," Stinnett said.
Miller recommends finding a stick or other object that the victim may be able to use to pull himself to safety.
Even if it takes time for crews to arrive, there is always hope.
"When people fall into cold water, cold water drownings have a higher chance of survival than people who drown in warm water, so we have more time," Stinnett said.
His best advice is to avoid the ice altogether.