Steve Burtt of Orrington tries his luck ice fishing on Brewer Lake on Jan. 6, 2016. Credit: John Holyoke

The low temperatures have dropped below freezing nearly every night for a few weeks now, and area ponds are starting to skim over with ice near shorelines. Smaller ponds have even thicker coatings, and ice-fishing message boards on the internet have begun to show evidence that some hardy souls have already begun their “hardwater” seasons.

The warm spell that much of Maine experienced early this week may put a damper on some of those activities, but some lakes will still remain covered with ice after the brief thaw.

Therefore, it seems like a perfect time to issue a seasonal message in hopes of avoiding disaster: Be careful out there. Your life may depend upon it.

According to various charts you can find on the internet, you ought to stay off the ice when it’s less than 2 inches thick. When it’s 3 or 4 inches thick, you may be able to walk or cross-country ski on it. You may be OK on a snowmobile on 6 inches, some of those charts will tell you. And 8 or 12 inches? Some data suggest you may be safe driving a car across the lake.

Key words: May be.

Many charts seem to be talking about solid, clear blue or black ice on lakes and ponds. And the charts are full of disclaimers that shouldn’t be ignored. Chief among them: Ice thicknesses will vary from spot to spot.

So ask yourself: Is that fish really worth an icy swim? Or hypothermia? Or death?

Of course not.

Among the common tips for ice safety: Check the ice early and often as you walk onto a lake or pond. The thickness of the ice will vary from spot to spot, and in places where there is current, the ice will be much thinner. Be particularly careful near points, inlets and outlets, and near rocks that may absorb the sun’s heat and melt the ice.

Carrying a set of ice picks can be a good idea as well, as the hand-held tools can be lifesavers for someone who has broken through the ice and needs to get out of the water.

Wes Ashe, a state fisheries biologist whose job requires that he spend lots of time on the ice each winter, doesn’t mess around when it comes to safety. He said he has only gone through the ice once, but that was enough for him.

“I now wear a float coat all the time,” Ashe said. “If you don’t own a float coat, don’t be afraid to wear a life jacket under your gear. I’ve yet to catch one fish that’s worth taking a polar plunge — or worse.”

Ice anglers aren’t the only ones in potential danger. Ice skaters who like skating across pristine ponds are also at risk, as are snowmobilers and skiers.

And ice can be dangerous even if you’re not planning to step foot on it, as two Millinocket men learned recently.

On the final day of the firearms deer-hunting season, the Maine Warden Service deployed a hovercraft to rescue the men, who had used a canoe in an attempt to cross the Penobscot River, and then became stuck when they couldn’t break through the thin ice that had formed.

Both were wearing life jackets and neither required medical treatment.

John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...