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Despite Risk, Some Sightseers Venture onto Lake Michigan's 'Unstable' Ice

By Benjamin Woodard | January 10, 2014 6:36am
 Residents of Rogers Park said they ventured out on lake ice to take in its natural beauty.
Lake Michigan Ice Safety
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ROGERS PARK — As adventurous sightseers ventured onto the ice covering the partially frozen Lake Michigan during the sub-zero cold spell this week, officials reminded the public to take extreme caution now that the ice is thawing, officials said.

"Ice is very unstable," Petty Officer 3rd Class Lauren Laughlin, a U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman, said Thursday. "In the morning it’s cold and that ice might be a foot thick, but as the day warms up and the sun comes up, that ice might be 2 inches thick as you go out on it again."

Still, the "gorgeous" and "beautiful" views from the lake led some residents to brave it and head out onto the ice as a polar vortex gripped the city earlier this week.

"I come out here every single day," said Erick Howenstine, 55, who had hiked off the beach — and onto the ice — along the a pier at Loyola Beach earlier this week.

He said he had even fallen through the ice a couple of times in the past.

"My leg went in. I was walking my dog and wanted to get a good picture," he said. "I took a little risk to get the picture, but it was so beautiful. It was a nice sunny day and the ice formations are amazing."

Howenstine, a longtime resident of Rogers Park, said he only walks out where he knows the water isn't too deep, just in case he needed to scramble out.

Another time, Howenstine said, he had to rescue his dog from the frigid waters after she fell in.

"She went in, and fortunately it wasn't over one of these deep cliffs," he said. "I had to reach down and pull her up by the collar."

Cindy Boland, 44, was out at Pratt Boulevard Beach this week with her family. She also ventured out on the ice over a shallow section of beach south of Pratt Pier.

"I always love the lake in winter, it's so beautiful," she said. "I like the melting and thawing."

She said she pays attention to the condition of the ice to be sure that it's safe.

The Coast Guard and Chicago Fire Department rescued at least one person this year who had fallen through the ice.

On Jan. 2, police and rescue teams responded to reports of a man stuck in the ice at East 75th Street. The man survived.

Early last year, a dog that had fallen through the ice was rescued at Loyola Beach.

Laughlin, with the Coast Guard, said 53 people were rescued from either cold water or icy conditions last year in the Coast Guard's Great Lakes region, which includes inland portions of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.

"If you don’t know what you’re doing, then we recommend that you don’t do it," she said.

The Coast Guard offers these tips to stay safe in icy conditions:

• Know the weather and ice conditions, know where you're going, and know how to call for help. Also help others find you by remaining upright and standing to give rescuers a bigger target to locate you. Only do this if it is safe to do so.

• Have proper clothing to prevent hypothermia; dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature. Wear retro-reflective clothing at night. Avoid wearing cotton and wear layers of clothing that wick away moisture like Polypropylene, which retains more of your body heat than any other fabric. Polypropylene thermals are the best extreme cold weather base layer of clothing made.

• Have proper equipment: marine radio, life jackets, screw drivers/ice picks, etc.