Water Safety in Nature

While many of us enjoy outdoor activities in the winter, it’s important to know about the natural hazards we could encounter. Activities like ice fishing, pond hockey and hiking along stream side trails can be perfectly safe while everything is good and frozen, but even the slightest rise in temperature could change this dramatically.

In the winter, ice will form on still water and become thick enough when the temperatures drop well below zero for several weeks; however, rivers and creeks have variable ice thicknesses due to their higher currents and are never completely safe to walk on.

When mild temperatures hit, people like to get outside to enjoy nature and this is usually when the hazards become more of a concern. In the past, ice breakup and fast flowing waters typically wouldn’t happen until spring, but more often these days we get a significant mid-winter thaw that melts the snow causing high flows and ice breakup. Whether we get rain in January or 20°C temperatures in March, the rivers and creeks in the Ganaraska Region can react quickly to the weather with increased runoff. Under these conditions, ice cover will crack and become thin, while the water beneath the ice starts moving faster and higher. The most dangerous scenario occurs when flows have increased but ice cover is still intact. On the surface, everything looks fine, meanwhile beneath the ice is fast moving, very cold water. The danger of slipping down a muddy bank or falling through the ice into the water is minor compared to what happens afterwards. Our bodies lose heat very quickly in cold water, leading to hypothermia. Immersion in water at or near freezing can result in death within 15 minutes. Compounding these effects is the fast moving water that makes rescue efforts more difficult.

The take home message is that water bodies can become dangerous under spring-like conditions, even if they look safe. Safety is most important, so be informed, don’t take unnecessary risks, and make sure children in your care understand the hazards.

Through generous funding from Ontario Power Generation (OPG), the Ganaraska Region Conservation Authority (GRCA) runs an outreach program to educate young people about the safety around water. The annual Spring Water Awareness Program (SWAP) is offered over four weeks in February and March to grade 4 students across Northumberland and parts of Clarington. As spring approaches, young people are frequently drawn to explore the edges of fast-moving streams or ice-strewn beaches; SWAP enables students to understand just how important it is to stay away from these areas. SWAP can save lives. If you are a grade 4 teacher in the Ganaraska watershed who would like the GRCA to present to your class, please email agriffiths@grca.on.ca for available dates or see ‘For Teachers’ at www.ganaraskaforestcentre.ca. To experience a modified version of this program with your children, join the GRCA at OPG’s March Break Madness week.