24th December 2005
I’ll come back to this map in a moment, but for now let’s just say that “green”
represents the intended path. The “red” lines indicate my best guess at the path
I actually followed across the lake.
Let me preface this blog by saying that it’s me, Brian, writing this blog so
that you know that everyone is alive and well. I brought my mountain bike
with me on our trip to see family up here in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.
Our first stop on the trip was Platteville, Wisconsin where temperatures
at one point reached the coldest temperature I have ever felt: 9 below zero.
Temperatures had taken a big swing upward all the way to the lower 40’s, though,
by the time we drove five hours farther north to Shell Lake, Wisconsin to stay
with Kristine’s parents for a week.
I was not happy about temperatures in the 40’s as I had been looking
forward pretty much all year to riding my bike across a usually quite frozen
The average ice depth reported here
was just under 7 inches. Six inches is usually safe to drive a car onto the lake. I decided
that armed with this information, it would probably be safe to bike across the lake.
Riding through quite a bit of slush to reach the lake, however, did not help my confidence. So I decided to play it safe and stick close to the shore and head to the part of the lake that usually freezes first — the South Bay. Let’s return to the map at the top of this blog. The green line indicates this nice safe, intended path. The numbers on the map indicate the locations where the following five pictures were taken. I will use these pictures to help tell the rest of the story.
1: getting my feet wet – real ice skating
First, note that it is VERY foggy in this picture as I begin my journey. Note also that there is free standing puddles of water (not open water) from ice melt. I was following snowmobile and four-wheeler tracks, so this helped somewhat in rationalizing that what I was doing wasn’t completely insane. Nevertheless, seeing large puddles on a frozen lake isn’t necessarily a good thing.
2: island in the fog
As I was biking down to the spot on the lake where I took this picture, there was
a couple times that I lost site of the shore because of the heavy fog. This didn’t
worry me so much as I was following the marks left by quite a few snow mobilers
and four-wheelers — and I knew that I was heading in the right direction. When
I just barely could make out Scout Island to my left, I knew exactly where I was.
At this moment, I can remember thinking that it sure would be easy to get lost in
this heavy fog since the island less than 200 yards away would normally have been
3: the south landing
I made it to the South Landing marked on the map at the top of this blog
with a three. Here you can see a truck and a sport utility vehicle parked
on the ice, with the headlights of a third vehicle coming onto the lake
via a landing where I went kayaking with Kristine after only knowing
her for two months! At this point I actually exited the lake thinking that
I would just bike the couple miles back to the house via the roads.
I decided that with all the slush on the roads and low visibility it would
be better to just turn around and head back the same way I came via the lake.
Besides, there were numerous cars on the lake, and three drove right
by where I was standing when I took this picture. I thought I had nothing to
worry about. Big mistake.
4: pressure ridge and merry men
I started out by following the track I had made earlier.
Then I decided that on my way out I had stayed closer to the shore than I
wanted to because I remembered last year that the ice would crack really bad near the shore. So as you can tell from the red line, I veered to
the right … a little bit too far to the right! When I passed by the island,
I thought I was heading due north and passing by the airport shore somewhere
near or along the green line.
I didn’t realize it was the island until I started crossing pressure
ridges like the one in this picture, which I had not seen on my way down
to the south landing. Suddenly, I came across a three foot high pressure ridge
and two men on four wheelers pausing for a drink. They confirmed my suspicion that I had come around on the wrong side of the island. They warned me that
I had best turn around and come back the way I came as they had heard
that there were open areas of water still on the lake. I turned down the
drink they offered me in a flask — “one for the road” — which may
have turned out to be the best decision I could have made as impaired
judgment could have led to a story with a not so happy ending.
See “moments of panic” after the next picture. I turned
around and headed back the way I came.
5: through the fog, the north landing
This picture was taken after the scariest part of my trek across the lake.
Nine out of the ten moments of panic listed below all happened after I left
the “merry” ATV men. I’m not exactly sure how to explain what happened
since I don’t know myself, but I got quite lost and disoriented in the
fog with near-zero visibility. As you can tell from the red line on the map,
I did successfully make it around the island, but when I was attempting
to find a good track to lead me back to Shell Lake, I picked the wrong
track, lost my bearing and headed out across the longest part of the
lake, which is exactly where any open water (if there was any) would be.
I of course did not know this at the time.
The snow mobile track I was following
was a very good, straight one so I decided that I would just stick with
it and follow it. The track initially had other tracks crisscrossing
it, but eventually it became the only track visible. The fog kept getting
thicker and thicker leading to moment of panic #1, which was certainly
the scariest moment — when the fog was thick and the snow had been blown
enough that for a moment (probably less than a second) I lost complete
sight of the track I was following. During that moment, several realizations
- There was no land in sight, and I had absolutely no
idea where I was.
- I had been biking for probably close to thirty minutes and had not seen any
sign of land at all. I realized I was probably heading in the wrong direction, but I had no idea which direction I was heading. In fact, I was thinking that I might be heading south or southeast across the lake and at any moment would hit the south shore somewhere directly below the 4 on the map. This was in fact quite the opposite of the direction I was heading.
- The sun had already set and I would have no hope of navigating in the dark.
A few minutes after having these realizations and confessing that I believed
that Jesus was my savior both here on earth and for the life to come … not
sure which of the two ways He was going to choose to save me today … I saw
a garbage can. My immediate thought was that I had taken a direct route to the
town landing and that it was a garbage can from the city park. Unfortunately,
I quickly realized that it was just a garbage can from where an ice fisherman
had been. I keep biking and about 100 yards later a car came into view. I biked
up to about 25 yards to the side of the car and called out to the man who was
in the car with the window down asking him which way was the nearest shore.
I told him that I had gotten lost on the lake and had absolutely no
idea where I was. He responded that I was only about 100 yards away from the north landing.
He went on to say that he was so surprised when he saw me and said to himself: “There’s something you don’t see everyday…
Imagine someone on a mountain bike coming
into view from out of a thick fog in the direction of the middle of the lake. It
might have actually freaked him out a bit. This last picture above is
a picture I took looking back after I made it to the north landing. You can
see that visibility is probably less than 25-50 yards. The tire tracks are
from the car driven by the man I talked to. Notice that his car, less than 100 yards
from the shore is not even close to being visible. Even after making it to shore, I was a good 2 miles from home, and I wasn’t entirely sure where I was or which road
I was on to get home. I’ll let Kristine comment or write
her own blog about the search and rescue party that she and her father conducted
to try to find me. I was gone for almost two and a half hours — more than an hour and a half longer than anyone (including me) was expecting. I had probably ridden close to 15-20 miles in the snow and ice on the lake and on the roads by the time I made it home. Kristine was still out looking for me when I got home.
Moments of panic:
- When the fog got so thick that I momentarily lost the one snow mobile track I was following.
- When I first realized that I had no idea where I was and that I couldn’t see land in any direction.
- When I had to ride through large puddles where the ice had thawed and pooled on top of the deeper ice below it.
- When I began thinking irrationally and recognized that I was actually starting to panic. The irrational thought
that scared me the most was that the track I was following was actually going in circles and that I might not be any
closer to land then I had been 15-20 minutes earlier.
- When I was told by two “merry” ATV’ers that there was open water on portions of the lake and that I should be
careful crossing pressure ridges as the ice might “just open up underneath you”.
- When I realized that the sun had already set and that I might not make it shore before it got too dark
to see anything.
- When I heard large sections of ice “splashing” underneath me.
- When I came across sudden difficult sections of riding not because of snow on the ice, but rather because of ice
that had melted so much, that my tires were sinking a good inch or two into the slush.
- When riding became so awkward because of the snow and ice that had accumulated on the spokes of the wheels that I thought I had a flat tire and would have to walk the rest of the way across the lake.
- When I realized that if I dropped my sunglasses that I was currently carrying in my mouth, that I was pretty sure I
would not stop to pick them up.