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The winter's first ice is already skimming northern lakes and ponds. Unfortunately, every year we hear of people drowning because they broke through ice they thought was safe.

"I know most of us think to ourselves, 'If I fell through, I'll just climb back onto the solid ice and be just fine,'" said Tim Smalley, water safety specialist for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). "Unfortunately, this can be much easier said than done. First, when you fall through the ice, you're taken by surprise. If you knew you were going to break through, you wouldn't have walked there in the first place."

The sudden shock of plunging into freezing water adds to the confusion and panic, Smalley said. "Cold water saps body heat 25 times faster than air of the same temperature. Just try holding your hand in a cooler full of ice water for more than a few seconds and you'll see what I mean," he said.

Then comes the difficult task of climbing out of the cold water onto the surface of the wet and slippery ice. Unless people have a plan of action for just such emergencies, their chances of getting out safely can be pretty slim.

ice claws can save your life"There's no reason that you can't have a safe and enjoyable time on the ice as long as you follow some basic safety guidelines. For example, don't walk on new clear ice less than four inches thick and exercise a little common sense," Smalley said. "Call ahead to a local bait shop or resort. Ask them what the ice conditions are on the particular lake you're going to, and carry along a set of ice claws to rescue yourself or a buddy."

People can purchase a set of commercially made ice rescue picks or "claws" from a bait shop or fishing tackle dealer. Or, if they have a few simple tools and a little skill in the workshop, they can make a set for a couple of dollars for materials.

"This can be a fun project for young budding woodworkers with a little adult supervision," Smalley noted.

Here is how to make ice rescue picks:

- get two four-inch pieces of wooden doweling the size of a broom handle or a little larger; they should be made out of material that floats in case a person drops the claws

- drive a stout nail into one end of each dowel

- use a file to sharpen the nail heads to a point

- drill a hole into the dowels (in the end opposite the nail) and tie a length of strong cord through the hole so a pick is on each end "jump- rope" fashion; people may also drill a hole in the ends alongside the nails so the nail on the other pick can nest in the hole, keeping both points covered.

The DNR offers this advice to people who fall through the ice.

- keep ice picks in pocket for quick emergency access

- try to remain calm

- turn in the water towards the direction they came from, because that is probably the strongest ice

- dig the points of the picks into the ice and while vigorously kicking feet; pull onto the surface by sliding forward on the ice

- roll away from the area of weak ice; that will distribute weight to help avoid breaking through again

- seek shelter, heat, warm dry clothing and warm, nonalcoholic and noncaffeinated drinks

- have someone should call 911 and seek medical attention if the victim becomes disoriented, has uncontrollable shivering, or exhibits any other ill effects that may be symptoms of hypothermia (the life threatening drop in the body's core temperature).

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