Ice Fever sufferers on Burlington Harbor (VT), February 2005


Ice Fever

The Disease of Black Ice

A Dutch friend told me that when the ice comes in in Holland, half the population gets to ice fever and the other half wonders what all the fuss is about.   Ice fever is a particular problem for people who seek the smoothest, hardest ice.  Of course it is also the newest, thinnest  and some of the least reliable ice.  The affliction has also been called 'The call of the ice siren' and 'Rapture of the ice'

Symptoms and indicators:

  • A distracted demeanor. 
  • Suspension of normal caution about thin ice.
  • Patient often found hurriedly sharpening skates or iceboat runners or hunting for fishing gear.
  • Usually associated with a strong cold snap.
  • Most common in December and January. 
  • May involve not showing up for work or other obligations.

Treatment and prognosis:

  • Forget chicken soup: just make sure the victim has their ice claws, a throw rope, and a couple of buddies with them (hopefully with a less severe case of the fever).
  • The advance purchase of cold water protective clothing is highly recommended for people who are vulnerable to this affliction.  Encouragement from a spouse or friend may be needed as people with ice fever generally have a diminished appreciation of the mortality risk associated with thin ice.   Protective clothing is especially important for older and/or thinner ice fever victims.
  • Symptoms usually subside abruptly with a significant snowfall or a warm spell.
  • Generally a full recovery can be expected in a few days.
  • See the rest of the lakeice site for other suggestions for minimizing the adverse consequences of the disease.

 The following is a series of accounts of people afflicted with ice fever.  Most of these articles appeared in the 2011 blog.


THIN ICE-The Ice Siren Calls

Posted on the LakeIce 2011 Blog Late December 2010

The hole photographed two days later. Photo by Richard Saltenstall.

This event event involved two friends, one of whom has lots of experience with ice and the other less so.  They were confronted with a gorgeous black ice sheet in the 1-1/2 to 1-3/4” range.  The ice siren called and they chose not to resist. One had a dry suit and skates and one had a float coat, skates and a Skimbat (hand held sail). The ice had some thinner areas they did not discover when they did their ice checking.    The person with the Skimbat found some ice around 1-1/8" and broke through.  He was able, reportedly after several attempts, to rescue himself with his claws.  He did not have a whistle and was otherwise not able to get the attention of his skating partner until after he had rescued himself. Afterwards the gentleman who swam had great things to say about the value of his float coat and his future intent to wear a wetsuit.

I suspect the dry suit that one of them was wearing may have contributed to their decision to go out on ice they otherwise would have considered too thin.  The prospect of a great day on the ice lures many of us onto ice that turns out to be worse than we led ourselves to believe.  To guard against the call of the ice siren (ice fever), a good question to ask yourself as you stand at the edge of a tempting ice sheet is: What problems might this ice have and how well am I prepared to deal with them if things go wrong?  Thankfully, as things turned out in this case, the two skaters were sufficiently prepared.


PS: The details of this event were provided by a third party who investigated the scene shortly afterwards.  Certain details have been left out to protect the afflicted.  



 Dave's City Ice Story

Several years ago, my wife and I were living in Chicago, but spent many holidays visiting family in Vermont. After several visits with excellent wild ice skating trips (including a few great trips across Lake Champlain to NY) along with safety lessons and equipment from Jamie Hess (of, we began to explore the skating possibilities around Chicago. We eventually found a fantastic place to skate, near the botanical gardens, along a small chain of ponds and lakes connected by canals. Beautiful skating, 30 minutes from downtown, with a several-mile long loop through trees. Excellent, even if officially off limits for skating.

 Skokie Lagoons

As we grew more familiar with wild ice and what to look for in terms of safety, we became more confident, and somehow less cautious. This trend of confidence spiraled into recklessness one chilly spring day. We saw that the ice was marginal in places, but were so ampedup to skate that we went anyway. After a couple of miles, we came to a canal where the water was probably moving a bit faster, and the ice was pretty thin. We tied a nylon rope between us and decided to continue on, skating as far apart as possible. Yes, we now had gone from the realm of reckless to stupid. The only saving grace (and one of the reasons we decided to continue) was that the canals were quite narrow, with gently sloping banks, so we'd never be more than ten feet from shore. We even stopped before a very narrow section to consider if we should continue, but I think I was so psyched to complete the loop that I decided to go ahead anyway. We approached the narrow section (where the water was likely moving faster still), and -crack!- there I went. In retrospect, I should only have been surprised that it didn't happen sooner.

My wife stopped in her tracks, then turned around and skated away, with the rope still tied around both of our chests. I slid up onto the ice easily, like a seal. After a cold (and fast!) skate back to the car, I stripped off my clothes (much to the shock of a few folks enjoying the park) and changed into something dry while my wife started the car and cranked up the heat.

A humbling lesson for me, thankfully with no consequences other than a long chill and some wet clothes.


DM,  January 2011


Editorial Note: Dave's story attests to the attractiveness of ice and our human tendency to want it to be OK so much that we deceive ourselves. In follow-up emails Dave reported that he thought much of the ice on the canal melted in a thaw and refroze in a cold spell just before they went skating.  They had ice claws but did not have test poles.   For skaters, ice testing poles are a much less risky method to assess the ice than the much over used 'human ice testing tool'.  Currents  usually create variable ice thickness  on any narrow body  of water, even if there appears to be almost no flow.   Refreezes are deceptive as the ice usually forms easily and may look a lot like it did before it melted however it is still new ice with all the variability associated with any new ice.   This is especially true in the spring when days are long and the sun is strong and cold spells are short and not that cold.  -  Bob

Where Dave fell through (probably one many possibilities that day)



The following are some other Ice Fever Accounts:

Rapture of the Ice and Post Immersion Stress Syndrome (PISS) by Lloyd Roberts

Click here for Big New Ice page:  It contains couple of accounts of the attractiveness and liabilities of mid-late season huge black ice sheets on Lake Champlain and Lake Vattern in Sweden.

 In Sweden in January 2011 two skaters were out at sunset on ice on the Kattegatt Archipelago, an arm of the North Sea off Gothenburg.  They were stranded when a large vessel (icebreaker?) broke the channel and the ice for a considerable distance on either side. These lucky skaters were rescued in 12 minutes (thanks to their cell phone and a nearby, helicopter equipped, rescue unit).  The rescuers complimented the couple for not trying to jump between the ice pieces.   Typical rescue times are more like 45 min to hours depending on the situation. Click here for the story in Swedish (the English version has been removed from the server it was on).   This story is another good reason to bring fully charged,waterproofed cell phone, some sort of light and, for a place like this, a chemical or laser flare.