Drenched and dripping from head to toe on the shore of Westchester Lagoon, Clint Helander said he wasn’t expecting to fall through the ice. But he was ready just in case.
Helander broke through as he ice skated with two friends on a thinly frozen portion of the lagoon Tuesday afternoon in Anchorage. Conditions are a far cry from the midwinter norm, which can draw hundreds to a hot-mopped surface of thick ice there. Much of the lagoon remains open water this week.
“For the last couple years, we’ve been actually testing the thinness of the ice,” Helander said. “And we’ve been trying to just get the early-season record for skating out here. I believe that happened yesterday. Somebody else beat us to it.”
Helander, 38, said he has several years of experience skating on the “wild ice” of lakes and waterways. He understood conditions were marginal, he said.
“This was about as thin as I would ever go on,” he said.
The skaters triggered otherworldly echoes as the ice surface was stressed by their strides. As Helander passed a section of the lagoon between the small island and the shoreline along West 15th Avenue, the ice gave way, immediately submerging him. An Anchorage Daily News journalist, who was at the lagoon for another reason, witnessed the mishap.
“In all my years of ice skating, wild ice skating (or) whatever, I’ve never fallen in,” Helander said.
Helander said the instance put into practice what he had learned about self-rescue. For a few seconds, that meant trying to remain calm and focused. Other adventure mishaps have taught him that not panicking is important.
He also carried two small picks in order to pull himself out. Without the picks, sometimes called ice claws, Helander or any skater would have a hard time finding something to grip on the smooth and slippery surface.
“Basically, if you do fall, you can stab them into the ice and, in theory, climb your way out,” he said.
Helander said his feet touched the bottom of the lagoon as he clambered, but the task was still a challenge. His picks broke off chunks of ice several times before he reached a spot thick enough to support his weight. When he reached it, he kicked his feet back in order to slide across the surface ice laterally like a seal, rather than try to lift himself upward.
“I have practiced that before with a dry suit,” he said.
Helander, who owns a roof cleaning company and is a nursing student, said he’s also an experienced alpine climber and backcountry skier with high tolerance for risk.
“It certainly is wise to be careful and I would never recommend people take the risks that I take,” he said.
At least one passerby who watched the situation remained unimpressed. “Stupidest thing I’ve ever seen,” a man said to Helander afterward.
Steve Rafuse, Anchorage parks superintendent, said the city doesn’t maintain ice at Westchester Lagoon until it’s 16 inches thick.
“At the same time, I don’t think we necessarily have the power to stop folks from going out and getting on any body of water that might be frozen right now,” Rafuse said.
“It’s up to people to use and exercise good judgment,” he said.
Wild ice skating with Nordic skates has grown in popularity in recent years. As temperatures drop this month in Southcentral Alaska, images from backcountry skating locations have populated many social media feeds. Guidelines published by many organizations, including NOAA and the U.S. Forest Service, advise that a person on foot needs ice at least 4 inches thick.
Helander’s advice to adventurers is to first learn the basics of safety and rescue, and to carry enough safety equipment for the whole skating party. That could include not just rescue picks, but also ropes, helmets, pads, ice screws and a pole for probing.
“I think when you go ice skating, you should always be prepared to fall in,” he said. “I have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of days skating. I wasn’t expecting it, but I wasn’t surprised.”
He’s also not dissuaded.
“I’ll go back out tomorrow,” he said before heading home Tuesday evening to dry off.