Steer clear of thin ice

Feb 19, 2021

Refuge staff, the Nikiski Fire Department and Jenwar Towing helped retrieve a truck from under ice on Upper Skilak earlier this month.
Credit Stephen Robertson

At one point or another most winters, a car finds itself at the bottom of a partly frozen lake in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

That’s what happened the first weekend of February, when a 2015 Chevy pickup fell through the ice of Skilak Lake.

No one was hurt, said Park Ranger Chris Johnson.

“A guy was out on Skilak Loop with his nephew that was up from Arizona and they came down upper Skilak," he said. "They saw the boat ramp there. They walked out on the ice and then they walked back to their truck, and he said, ‘I’m just going to show you what driving on ice looks like.”

They got about 30 feet before the ice broke.

“They were able to get out of the truck," Johnson said. "He was able to grab clothes before the truck went under and also put a tow strap on it.”

That was so he could keep track of the truck when it fell through the ice. That spot of the lake is about 12 feet deep.

They called a tow company and the Nikiski Fire Department’s dive team, who sent two divers out to pull the truck out. The water was around 27 degrees at the time and the air was 1 degree.

The Niksiki Fire Department sent two members of its dive team to get the car.
Credit Stephen Robertson

Stephen Robertson of the Nikiski dive team said these incidents are becoming more frequent. They’ve seen cars go in Hidden Lake and Kenai Lake and they’re not always able to pull them out.

“I really think it boils down to people, especially with COVID right now, people just want to get out and be doing things," he said. "And sometimes they don't have the education behind what the ice conditions are.”

This accident happened just a week after the lake first froze. Refuge's Deputy Manager Steve Miller said it was not thick enough for a vehicle.

“In general, we recommend to recreate, just to walk out on the ice and go ice fishing, a minimum of four inches of ice," he said. "And then from there, if you’re going to be taking a snow machine, add another inch, so about five inches. Don’t even consider driving on ice until it’s eight to 12 inches thick.”

Larger lakes like Skilak don’t freeze until later in the season.

“If you have flowing water or moving water underneath it, it’s a lot less thick than some of the still waters that we have on some of the smaller lakes," Miller said.

That’s particularly true on Skilak.

“It’s a big lake, glacier-fed lake, gets a lot of current through it, it’s real dark-colored water so it absorbs sunlight more so the ice can be real unstable out on Skilak," Johnson said.

Miller said the only way to tell how thick the ice is to use a drill. He said people can also call the refuge to ask about thickness for refuge water. That’s 907-262-7021.