Timber Wolf, Lake Superior, Ontario

A lone timber wolf greets
paddlers along the north shore
of Lake Superior, Canada
(Photo by Michael Neiger)

The Rucksack Masthead
By Michael A. Neiger, Marquette, Michigan
Wilderness tripper: backpacking, winter camping, swift-water canoeing
Web site URL: http://therucksack.tripod.com • E-mail: mneiger@hotmail.com
Contents copyright © 1984-2007 by Michael A. Neiger • All rights reserved.


Ice Picks


Bush Skills

Ice picks
could save you
from an icy death

By Michael A. Neiger
Copyright 2001

Last updated on October 13, 2004

Ice picks could
help you get a grip
on slippery ice
so you could
pull yourself
back onto firm ice.

Contents of page

   Ice pics could save your life


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wilderness tripping
equipment and
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a book, catalog,
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** Recommended



The late-January sun warms your face as you skirt a cedar thicket along the shore of a small, eastern Upper Peninsula lake. Confident there's plenty of solid ice, you strike out for the opposite shore. An occasional snowmobile track crisscrosses the lake. A solitary green cedar branch marks an old ice-fishing hole. The sharp rapport of a tree cracking in the distance reminds you the mercury hasn't risen above zero in almost two weeks.

Moments later, you're gasping for air, struggling to stay afloat in the icy water. For an instant, you've lost your sight. Then you realize your eyelashes are frozen together. One of your skis bobs to the surface next to you. Your mind races. "How could I have broken through the ice in January?" Then it dawns on you. It's a spring-fed trout lake. Acting like a marina bubbler system, the springs have prevented the ice from freezing in certain locations. To make matters worse, the open holes have drifted over with crusty snow.

Your instinct to survive takes over. You frantically claw at the ice, struggling to pull yourself out. More than once you're almost out, only to loose your grip on the slippery ice and slide back into the numbing water. Before long, your fingers are too numb to even claw at the ice. You search your pockets for something sharp, but your hands don't work. They're frozen. "If only I had something to 'dig' into the ice," you think. "Something to pull myself out with." Before long, only a ski remains afloat.

Could this happen to you? If you don't carry ice picks it could. Ice rescue picks are nothing more than a couple of sharp objects used to get a grip on the ice. Ideally, they'll float and be tethered together by a lanyard to prevent accidental loss.


Make you own ice picks

Trappers often carried a couple of large log-cabin spikes in their pockets. Today, some outdoor enthusiasts still carry nails while others carry a pair of screwdrivers or awls on a lanyard. If you're handy with a few basic tools, you can even make your own ice picks with two pieces of doweling and a couple of large nails. For my first set of ice picks, I inserted nails into a couple of extra-large wooden file handles.


Buy a set of ice picks

Ice picks are commercially manufactured too. Check with your local sporting goods store or ice fishing shop for a pair. For the last few years, I've carried professional-grade rescue picks marketed under the name of Angel-Guard (formerly Hammes Pick-Of-Life). Popular with rescue squads across the country, these ice picks consist of a pair of four-inch-long, one-inch-diameter, bright orange plastic cylinders tethered together by a long lanyard. A sharp spike protrudes from each cylinder and is protected by a retractable pocket guard.

Angel-Guard ice picks are available for $20 plus shipping from Rock-n-Rescue, PO Box 213, Valencia, Pennsylvania, 16059-0213, 1-800-346-7673 (order item no. POL-1).


How to carry your ice picks

Ice picks should be carried in a location where they'll be readily accessible when you're submerged. I like to carry mine in a pouch attached high on the shoulder strap of my backpack. They can also be carried in an accessible pocket or hung around your neck by the lanyard. Others like to thread the lanyard through the sleeves of their jacket so the picks dangle at the ready near each hand. How ever you carry them, make sure there's no way you'll accidentally impale yourself on them if you happen to fall.


How to use ice picks

To use a set of ice picks, simply grasp one in each hand and plunge the spiked ends into the ice in a hand-over-hand fashion as you pull yourself onto the ice. Make sure you exit the hole in the same direction from which you entered, as this is the only known path of supporting ice.

Once you're out of the water and on the ice, don't stand up. Instead, keep your weight dispersed by rolling away from the hole, in the direction from which you originally came. Once safely on shore, re-warm yourself with a roaring fire and change into some dry clothing.

Whether you invest some time or money in a pair of ice picks, it may well be the best investment you'll ever make. One thing I know for sure, you'll never catch me skiing or snowshoeing across a beaver pond without a pair of ice picks handy.


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In God's wilderness lies the hope of the world,
the great, fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.
— John Muir 1838-1914, Alaska Wilderness, 1890

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