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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

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Police Warn Against Walking On Lake

A crack forms in the ice off the shore of the Lakewood Community Park on Summitt Street. The ice cover still has a way to go before it will be strong enough to support the weight of a person of average weight.

P-J photo by Patrick L. Fanelli
1/23/2007 - Less than a week ago, the afternoon sunlight reflecting off the clear blue waters of Chautauqua Lake offered a picturesque view — but Harry Trippett and Greg Whitford of Celoron expect to be ice fishing as early as Wednesday.

They won’t even be the first. According to Trippett, fishermen ventured out onto Burtis Bay on Sunday, a testimony to how swiftly Chautauqua Lake freezes over when the temperatures finally drop.

‘‘You have to go where the fish are,’’ said Trippett, a veteran ice fisher and a member of the Chautauqua Lake Fishing Association based in Celoron.

Ice fishermen seem to be the best at safely navigating the frozen surface of Chautauqua Lake. They know what spots to avoid — creek and canal outlets, for instance, or any other locations where currents underneath can weaken the ice cover.

The law enforcement officials whose job it is to rescue people on the lake still say that venturing out onto the ice is a risky undertaking under the best of circumstances.

‘‘Our opinion is you shouldn’t be on the lake anytime,’’ said Tom Block of the county sheriff’s department, navigation division. ‘‘That’s pretty much our position.’’

According to Capt. Darryl Braley, who heads the county Water Emergency Team, sheriff’s deputies respond to emergencies on frozen lakes, ponds, reservoirs, creeks, streams and rivers every season. He says it’s simply impossible for anyone to tell exactly how strong the ice is in the direction they are travelling.

‘‘The reason for that is the characteristic of the ice is so different from one day to the next,’’ Braley said.

They call the good type of ice ‘‘blue ice,’’ which forms when the temperatures stay low, the wind isn’t disturbing the water and the layer gets thicker and thicker, squeezing out air bubbles. The bad type — which forms when snow falls over a thin layer of ice and freezes with it — is more common on Chautauqua Lake.

‘‘That snow-ice, which is very suspectible to any kind of environmental impact, typically that’s the ice we find on Chautauqua Lake,’’ said Mayville Mayor Martin Bova, who used to run the navigation division of the sheriff’s department. ‘‘You very rarely find a good, thick layer of blue ice.’’

Whitford — himself a veteran ice fisher — likened the bad type of ice to a Slurpee from 7-Eleven.

‘‘You have to watch what kind of ice it is,’’ Whitford said. ‘‘A slushy you would buy in a store — when it freezes, it would not be as strong as an ice cube.’’

At this point, few footprints can be seen in the snow atop the ice cover, and even the most daring of fishermen have stayed fairly close to the shoreline since the ice is only a few days old and not yet at the three- or four-inch mark they say is suitable. With a continuous creak only 10 feet out from the Lakewood shoreline off Summit Street, the ice bellowed its own warning to stay away late Monday afternoon.

Nevertheless, it freezes fast, according to Dave Sage of the National Weather Service in Buffalo. As water gets colder, it also gets denser — and the colder water from the surface will continue to sink to the bottom. That stops, though, at 39 degrees, and at that point the surface temperature can continue to drop without the colder water sinking.

‘‘When it gets down to 39 degrees, the water stops getting denser. Once it’s down to 39 degrees, it cools off on top much more rapidly,’’ Sage said. ‘‘Chautauqua Lake would go pretty fast.’’

Sage said he wouldn’t be surprised if, within a week, the ice was so thick in many places that it could support the weight of a person — though he couldn’t say for sure since there are too many other variables to take into consideration.

According to Trippett, fishermen carefully test the ice before cutting a hole and dipping their lines into the water. They will venture out and, if the ice feels solid, drill a hole to check for that crucial three- or four-inch thickness. They take other precautions as well.

‘‘I’m pretty safety conscious. I carry safety equipment,’’ Trippett said, adding the equipment includes a self-rescue device with spikes that can grasp the ice. ‘‘I’ve never had to use it.’’
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