Kelly Bandas was peering out his window on the southwest side of Echo Lake in the Qu’Appelle Valley Wednesday afternoon when he saw what looked to be a black SUV stuck on the ice.
He had a feeling things might not end well.
Sure enough, 10 minutes later at around 4:30 p.m. CST, Bandas saw the vehicle fall through the ice.
“[The driver and his friends] sort of tried to push it out a little bit by the looks of it, and then the front went through,” Bandas said.
“After all was said and done, there was about five or six people standing out there scratching their heads. And they jumped in the other vehicles and away they went.”
Bandas doesn’t know who was driving the vehicle, but said the man had driven over a patch of ice that locals know to be especially thin due to a current that runs beneath it.
That particular spot is where Pasqua Lake and Echo Lake connect. Bandas lives just six houses down from the boat launch, and said the sketchy area is about 40 feet from the shore.
“Most ice fishermen know there’s a risk,” Bandas said.
The SUV had been following the main set of tire tracks back from the ice fishing area near the centre of the lake. But Bandas said those tracks are misleading because they take drivers over the thin ice spot. He said that lately, the most experienced fishers and locals tend to drive onto the ice from the opposite side of Echo Lake.
“[I thought] well, another one bites the dust. A vehicle goes through the ice every two to three years.”
Echo Lake is a popular ice fishing spot. Bandas said that last Saturday, Jan. 7, there were about 25 vehicles out on the lake.
As of Friday, one side of the SUV was still visible from the surface of the lake, but the majority of the vehicle was encased in ice.
What to look out for when driving on ice
Darrell Crabbe is executive director at Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation and a long-time ice fisher. He said ice fishers need to be vigilant about ice conditions.
“To handle that weight distribution on the lake, a lot of people wait until there’s at least 12 inches of ice before their vehicle goes on it,” Crabbe said.
While Bandas said that in this case the car tracks on the ice at Echo Lake did not run in a safe direction, Crabbe said following tracks is usually safe.
“The best case scenario is to follow somebody else’s tracks, because if they didn’t go through the ice, chances are you’re not going to go through,” said Crabbe.
There are other ways to ensure a safe ice fishing trip. Crabbe suggested sticking big branches in thin ice that has a spring running underneath it. This will warn others to not drive over that section.
He also suggested looking out for heaves. A heave is created as the ice grows and strengthens itself and then splits.
“It’s like tectonic plates we hear about creating earthquakes. The same dynamic occurs where the ice breaks, because it’s building and one part of the ice will slide under the other,” Crabbe said.
Heaves are very unstable until they have the chance to refreeze back to the density that the rest of the lake is at. This makes it very dangerous when a car is driving over that section.
Tyler McMurchy, spokesperson for SGI, said that between Nov. 1, 2022, and Jan. 12, 2023, there have been three claims related to vehicles being submerged in frozen lakes.
One incident occurred while the driver was ice fishing, the other two when the drivers were returning to the shore from ice fishing.
McMurchy said this number of incidents is not unusual and they are covered by insurance, but he warned people to be vigilant about warning signs.
“We want people to take all the precautions they can: to check ice thickness, to be aware of any kind of warnings and advice that authorities are posting regarding the ice. But ice can be unpredictable and it’s something that does happen from time to time,” McMurchy said.
The SGI spokesperson said the most important thing is the human cost of possibly being trapped in a submerged vehicle.
“We don’t want to see anybody in a position where their life is at risk going through the ice.”