Plurr report: Squam Lake

December 28, 2022

At the very end of December Squam Lake froze up with beautiful black ice. The ice was gorgeous, but thin and inconsistent. On December 28th five people broke through and went for a swim. My girlfriend Sarah and I were two of them. We were prepared and everything went completely smoothly, but it was a great learning experience for us. I want to share our experience, which involves mistakes and bad choices, but ends happily.


We got on the ice after a light snowfall had started, covering the perfectly clear black ice with a very thin layer of snow. The photo above, taken a short time before our plurr, gives a sense of what the ice looked like.

The map below shows our course on the ice, with annotations that are described in the text.

We headed east from Pipers Cove (green circle) along the southern shore, enjoyed Dog Cove, skated up and around the point into Sturtevant Bay, had lunch, then tried to head north from there but were stymied by inconsistent and thin ice. We worked our way back through the narrows south of Kimball Island, where we stopped to make coffee and ran into a couple other groups of skaters, then cut back north of Great Island. We were exploring in the direction of Bowman Island, to the west of it, when we fell in (red circle). We self-rescued, skated back the way we had come to the closest safe shoreline, then beelined back to our truck (red arrow).

The ice along the southern shore in the bays was strong and excellent; the farther north you got, the more inconsistent and generally thinner it was. We stopped and tested the thickness often, trying to stick to ice that was at least 4 pokes thick (or at least 2” when we actually measured). You can see from the way our track gets pointy north of Sturtevant that we were repeatedly blocked by thin ice (I’ve marked some of the spots with pink circles). We repeatedly experienced zipper cracking and got off that ice immediately; we were trying to be relatively cautious.


One cognitive error that’s clear in hindsight: We ran into Jamie shortly after setting out, and he told us that Evan and company had headed north, so I got it lodged in my head that a northern route was possible (even though he didn’t actually say that). Sarah and I both prefer loops to out-and-backs, and returning a different way sounded fun, so we kept looking for ways to make that happen, even though all the evidence in front of us said that returning the way we came was the safest choice. This frame of mind persisted even after we ran into Evan and Heidi and they said they hadn’t made it very far north, and had actually skated around the exact same way we had. I should have reassessed our plan more carefully with that new information, but didn’t.

Mistake: We were trying to find a way through the islands, for fun, and when we realized we couldn’t, we should have turned south to go all the way back around Great Island. But we didn’t, and cut to the north of it. We should have stopped to consider and discuss the possible implications of this, but we didn’t. Things had gone so well up until that point that we were getting sloppy. (Much as most alpine accidents happen on the way down.)

Mistake: We followed a single skater’s track north along the west short of Bowman Island, and reduced our level of caution and frequency of ice thickness checking, as though the presence of a track was a guarantee of safety. It’s certainly a piece of interesting information, but it’s only that. We shouldn’t have relied on the fact that another skater had passed through at an unknown point in the past, and we should have been increasing our caution as we got farther away from known ice.

Mistakes: And then we wandered off the track. At which point we fell through. There was no visible indication of change (we had earlier seen indications of plate boundaries even despite the snow cover), there was no visible or audible cracking. The ice tilted forward under me, then gave way. Sarah was behind me and to my side, she saw me going in, then the ice under her gave way too.

Mistake: We were too close together. In sketchy ice areas we tend to stay about 10m apart, or more; here we were chatting and had drifted to more like 10ft apart. Again, getting sloppy.

Successes: We both self rescued easily and quickly. The falling in was fast and smooth. I didn’t have time to think about much, other than “oh shit here we go”. Neither one of us went in above the neck, neither one of us experienced any kind of shock reaction. I was still carrying, and drinking from, the mug of coffee I had made a few minutes before, so my first thought in the water was annoyance that it had spilled. I grabbed the floating mug, grabbed my floating pole, checked on Sarah, then used my ice claws to haul myself out onto the ice we had come from, letting my legs float behind me. Sarah forgot about her ice claws and just hauled herself out.

This was the first time I’ve fallen through with a dry suit on, and boy was it nice. I felt fine in the water, not rushed or panicked at all. Then totally comfortable once back out. I just changed my gloves and was good to go, albeit with soggy boots (my dry suit has booties, so my feet were fine). I was wearing a belay jacket over the dry suit, with thick synthetic insulation, and it didn’t absorb much water.

Sarah wasn’t in a dry suit, but had a dry bag backpack on, which provided flotation and kept her extra clothes dry. She wasn’t soaked through, but she was very wet, so we skated immediately to shore. But that skate was enough to warm her up, so rather than change clothes and get cold due to exposure, we decided to just skate back to our truck, which was very close. At which point we changed and headed home, only having cut our trip short by a little bit.

Observation: We (as a community) talk about pulling ourselves out of the water onto the ice pretty casually, but even in this very easy to manage scenario, it was clear that many people would find it hard to do. Can you pull yourself out of a swimming pool using only your arms? Now imagine the swimming pool edge is slick ice not rough stone. Now imagine you’re covered in wet clothes and gear. Now imagine you can’t rely on the edge of the swimming pool so you have to slither forward using little ice picks to grip. Then factor in colder temperatures, wind, current, and other obstacles, and suddenly you’re dealing with a real physical and mental challenge.

Success: Practicing self rescue would be great, but in lieu of that, talking it though and pre-visualizing it can be helpful. We had talked through various emergency scenarios while skating, and had both been pre-visualizing the self-rescue steps, so when we actually fell through, we knew exactly what to do, and simply did it.

Success: We went into this outing knowing that, in terms of risk management, there was a higher than normal likelihood of something bad happening, but relatively low, and very manageable, consequences if something did. So we packed and dressed accordingly, and tried to make choices accordingly. Obviously we left room for doing better, but we had a wonderful skate and both consider it a very successful outing.