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Feb 15, 2004
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The Beach Strip
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The ice is tempting, but very deadly


Beach rescue unit practises its emergency techniques from the shoreline's unstable ice
Chris Sorensen
The Hamilton Spectator


Photos by Scott Gardner, the Hamilton Spectator
Practising rescue from the slippery icepack along the shoreline are Beach Rescue's Josh Passmore, left, Chris Brandow (simulating a victim) and David Maclean.



Ice on the shoreline: Once you're in, you can't get out.
At first glance, the winter shoreline along Hamilton Beach appears as a solid and serene mass of snow that is perched over Lake Ontario.
But Woody Langille knows first-hand that shore ice is a deceptive and dangerous beast.
About 20 years ago Langille, then 10, was among a group of school children playing on the ice pack during a break from school.
"We were jumping up and down on the ice floes at lunchtime," recalls Langille, a member of the Hamilton Beach Rescue Unit.
"And then, all of a sudden, the ice shifted and a couple of them got stranded."
By the time the beach rescue unit responded, the two children (and their dog) had ridden the floe nearly a kilometre from shore.
It was the team's last major wintertime rescue, according to retired unit chief Bill Pennel, 75.
Nevertheless, the unit's 20 active volunteers, who act as an auxiliary of the Canadian Coast Guard, still take every opportunity to hone their sub-zero skills.
On Saturday, seven unit members donned bright orange survival suits and headed out to the edge of the ice pack along the shore of Lake Ontario.
The pack now extends about 60 metres from shore and rises above the water as high as 10 metres in spots.
The group tethered themselves together in pairs. "If one of us slips the other one sits down," explained a grinning volunteer.
Next, the team jammed a metal wedge at one end of the rope ladder into the ice and hurled the makeshift staircase down toward the water.
It was followed by a small aluminum boat, also tethered to the shore, and two volunteers.
"Once someone falls in there's no way they're going to be able to climb out again," team member David Maclean said before gingerly scaling the gleaming ice wall.
He motioned with a gloved hand to a large crack about 10 metres from his black snowmobile boots.
"People just take (the ice) for granted, but it could just drop in at any moment."
And the clock begins to tick once someone hits the water.
It takes just minutes for hypothermia to set in when the water's temperature is near 0 C. As well, the extreme cold quickly saps strength, making it difficult to tread water or launch an attempt to clamber up the steep ice.
Maclean said that he and other unit members, who live along Beach Boulevard, are particularly concerned about what they claim is a growing number of people spotted out on the ice pack over the past few weeks.
"Last Sunday we saw about 50 people down here -- some of them with kids," Maclean said.
While Maclean admits the pack is visually stunning, with its towering white cliffs and rugged terrain, he cautions that it's an extremely dangerous place to go for a stroll.
In addition to being slippery and uneven, the shoreline ice is extremely unstable because water erodes the pack from underneath.
This creates soft spots, overhangs and even "blow holes" that spew geysers into the air when the waves hit.
Pennel remembers a call 10 years ago when a young girl slid down one such hole and died in the water beneath the ice.
She didn't have a chance, Pennel said.
csorensen@thespec.com
905-526-3214

Reproduced with the permission of The Hamilton Spectator.
 
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