As I watched my children use sticks to prod the frozen edges of our pond recently, I reminded myself how I had stolen the chance for some neighborhood kids to enjoy this simple pleasure. Some children moved into our neighborhood and started throwing rocks into the pond that backs up to many of our homes. I yelled across the pond to them to stop throwing the rocks. At the sound of my voice, the kids scattered and I never saw them venture over to investigate the pond again. I scared them off perfectly. I never got a chance to explain to them the reason they couldn't throw those particular rocks. The rocks were there for erosion control. I knew the owner had spent quite a bit of money placing the rocks there and that they needed to stay put. My attempt to keep the rocks in place had created a "fraidy cat" mindset in the children. Forevermore they shunned anything associated with the pond.
For many, winter resurrects this same fraidy cat mentality when it comes to frozen ponds, lakes or streams. This is a healthy reaction and may even prove to be a life-saving one. However, fear of frozen water is not the same as respect for it. One of my best teaching moments occurred on frozen water and I am thankful that I didn't let it pass because of fear. In a local school's wildlife area, I was leading a small group of students out to count trees that had been felled by a long-ago beaver infestation. We were about to take our usual path when one of the students noticed that with the leaves gone from the trees, we could see many more tree stumps than ever before. If we ventured to walk across parts of the frozen pond, we would get some really great data. With the students anxiously waiting to see if I would give the go ahead, I had to make an assessment. Was the pond really frozen? How thick was the ice layer? What would I do if someone broke through? I had just that morning measured the ice layer at the pond at my home. My own very deep, spring-fed pond's ice layer was more than 8 inches. The school pond was only six feet deep at best and was not spring-fed. We'd had a long series of below zero nights and many weeks well below freezing. I knew that the area we were crossing was only 2-3 feet deep. I was 100% certain conditions were more than safe. I passed out several long sticks, gave some instructions about ice safety, and we headed out. Ten minutes later, standing in the midst of hundreds of beaver nibbled stumps, we were all in awe. Previously, we had only counted stumps in the dozens. To see hundreds of stumps stretching in every direction was beyond exciting. To top it all off, we saw signs of all the animals that had spent time on the ice. We saw hundreds of bird, rabbit, deer and mouse trails. We followed a foraging shrew as if we were private eyes. We saw a fresh rabbit carcass we guessed to have been from a bird of prey. In short, we felt like we discovered a new world that was right under our noses. As we hiked back to the classroom, I saw a literal example of wide-eyed students. They were bubbling with talk and burst forth with news of what we saw to every person we encountered on the way. Being respectful and understanding of the ice had paid off in a big way.
I was able to recognize that it is possible to enjoy time outdoors on solid water, as long as all the risks are understood and the rules of ice play are kept. Most sources use the guideline that four inches of clear, solid ice are the minimum requirement to bear the weight of a single person. Five inches are recommended for group activities, such as hockey, or for equipment, such as a snowmobile. Eight inches for a small car. At home, I use our cordless drill to quickly find out the ice depth by drilling into it. Most everyone has a drill hanging up with their tools and use of it provides instant comfort about the safety of the ice you'll be using.
If you are still leery, don't completely give up on solid water adventures. At least let your children poke at a frozen puddle with a stick or use little rocks to play your own version of curling on your driveway. Winter is the only time you can experiment with ice outside for hours on end without it disappearing.
Minnesota DNR has a great website for tips on ice safety: http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/safety/ice/thickness.html