River ice never safe, warns fire department

Tyler Clarke
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Despite temperatures dipping into the deep-freeze of winter, don’t assume ice on the North Saskatchewan River is thick. 

Despite temperatures dipping into the deep-freeze of winter, don’t assume ice on the North Saskatchewan River is thick.

With a walking path clearly imprinted on the snow leading across the river east of the Diefenbaker bridge, this annual message by the Prince Albert Fire Department has yet to reach everyone.

“Unless it’s on a rink, there is no safe ice,” Deputy Chief Joe Zatylny said.

“People need to be cautious of what they do near or on ice and be aware that there are open spots on the river, typically all year round, that can be very dangerous.”

Unlike hockey rink ice, which freezes flat, river ice freezes in whatever pattern the river current carves, allowing for thin and potentially unstable areas.  

The deepest channel of the river, for example, typically erodes the ice more than along the edges, Zatylny explained.

“There’s no way, shy of drilling holes all the way across the river … to tell whether the ice is good, or stable enough to walk on.”

Some locations never freeze, he said, such as the outflow from the water treatment plant and ground-fed springs, where there’s too much turbulence to allow for water to freeze.

Snow can also insulate the ice, preventing it from freezing strong enough to support a person, Zatylny said.

“If you get a heavy snowfall early in the year before freeze-up and the ice isn’t as strong as if there was very little snowfall and cold temperatures.”

Crews from the Prince Albert Fire Department respond to an average of eight and 10 river rescue ice calls per year, with one or two of those resulting in full-blown rescues.

So far this year, they’ve yet to respond to any full-blown rescues, but have had a few calls where someone called to report a person on the ice.

Crews trained in the fall in preparation for the ice-up, and have another training session planned for some time in March, in preparation for the ice’s melt. 

Ice tends to let out around April 7 or 8, give or take five days, with the preceding weeks boasting the year’s most unstable river ice.

“Our rescuers need to be very cautious and up on all of their skills by the spring,” Zatylny said, adding that this tends to be time they receive the most calls.

Organizations: Prince Albert Fire Department

Geographic location: North Saskatchewan River

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