While the ice may look safe, Capt. Clint Holt of the Grand Haven Department of Public Safety warns otherwise.
“It’s never solid ice,” Holt said Friday morning, after noticing posts on social media showing people climbing on the ice near the Grand Haven piers and even walking on the frozen river between the piers. “It’s always unstable. There’s no time of year when that’s safe. We’re concerned that people are going to venture out because it does appear to be solid and safe, but people can get themselves in trouble really quickly.”
Kirk McKay, master chief at Coast Guard Station Grand Haven, echoed Holt’s statements.
“We put our guys out on the ice on the basin (Thursday) to do some ice rescue work, and right when we stepped out into the river, a couple of our guys fell through,” McKay said. “You get big chunks of ice, then real thin ice. There’s just no way of knowing what the condition is.”
While inland lakes and bayous are frozen solid and see plenty of foot traffic from fishermen and others, the ice over Lake Michigan and the Grand River seldom freezes solid due to moving water underneath it.
“The currents and wave action really compromise the ice,” Holt said. “With forecasted rain and the thaw that’s going to take place, it’s going to change the water levels. That heaves the ice up and makes it unstable. There’s a lot of variables that affects the ice out there.”
The Grand River has a significant amount of current that continually flows out into Lake Michigan, making it difficult for solid ice to form. That current then extends out around the piers.
Closer to shore, wave action under the ice forms a phenomenon called shelf ice, where the ice appears to be safe to walk on but contains weak spots that can be especially treacherous.
“On Lake Michigan, right now, the back side of the shelf ice is carved out by wave action,” Holt said. “It looks solid from shore, but people get out on top of it and don’t realize what they’re on is severely undercut. They end up in Lake Michigan, and there’s no way they can rescue themselves. They might be standing in chest-deep water, but they can’t get out. They get extremely hypothermic, and you can’t see them from shore.”
Walking out on the ice isn’t just a risk to yourself — it puts potential rescue personnel at risk, as well.
While the ice on the local bayous is generally considered much safer than ice on Lake Michigan and the river, Holt stresses the mantra that “no ice is safe ice.”
He urges anyone heading out onto the ice to take the following steps:
• Wear a flotation device.
• Notify someone of where you’re going and when you’re planning to return.
• Check the ice’s thickness and consistency with a spud.
• Bring a whistle in order to draw attention to yourself should you fall through the ice.