On Thin Ice
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 4 KIP KNUDSON
Headquarters and Supply Company, 834th Aviation Support Battalion
Minnesota Army National Guard
St. Paul, Minnesota
If there is one thing that’s true about safety, it’s that there are no new ways to create accidents. The same scenarios keep happening again and again. Sharing personal stories of these mishaps (or near mishaps) allows us to see patterns and the decisions leading up to the event. Hopefully, this will allow the next person to stop and think before making a decision that can lead to a similar mishap. This is my story.
Growing up, I loved snowmobiling. I especially enjoyed the adventure and speed. When I joined the Army, though, I had to put snowmobiling on hold. Eight years later, I completed active duty and joined the Army National Guard. I made new friends and colleagues in the Guard, one of which was Jim, who liked to ride and rebuild snowmobiles.
I’d wanted to get back into snowmobiling, so Jim suggested I go up to northern Wisconsin with him after drill in December. I was looking forward to this trip because all of my previous snowmobiling had been in southern Minnesota on frozen lakes and open fields. When drill weekend came, I was all set to go. Unfortunately, Jim said he could not meet me in Wisconsin until Tuesday. That meant I’d be snowmobiling alone until he arrived.
I drove up to Wisconsin and checked in to my hotel. There was six inches of fresh snow on the ground, so I was eager to go snowmobiling. After I unpacked, I unloaded my snowmobile and took it for a spin on the trails. I made sure I didn’t go too far since I wasn’t familiar with the area. I figured I would explore more come daylight.
The next day I got up early and went riding. My new sled was running great and, man, it was fast. I must have put 100 miles on it riding those trails. I was feeling confident in my snowmobiling abilities and thought I now knew everything about these trails. That night there was a full moon out and temps were in the 20s, a perfect time to go riding. Jim was coming up the next day and we would ride together then, but I didn’t want to wait, so I headed out again.
About two hours into my ride, I noticed a new trail. I could tell the groomer had been through there so it must be a good one to ride. I wasn’t disappointed, as the trail was pretty straight with a lot of trees. As I admired the cabins along the trail, the trees suddenly disappeared and I found myself in an open area. I figured I was now on a plowed field because the terrain was getting rough. I decided to press on to a hill up ahead and take a break. The hill would also give me a better view of the area.
When I reached the top of the hill, I was hit with a sinking feeling as I started putting the pieces together. The hill was really a little island in the Chippewa Flowage, a 15,300-acre impoundment created to augment downstream water flow, and what I thought had been a plowed field was actually broken ice. I also noticed wolf tracks in the snow. Wolves are common in the northern woods of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, so I was in a bad spot thanks to my overconfidence and sense of invulnerability.
I figured I had two choices: I could stay on the island and hope someone found me before I was taken out by hypothermia or the wolves, or I could try to go back the way I came and risk falling through the ice and drowning. I knew my sled was fast enough to skip over the water should the ice break, so I cracked the throttled and hung on. Just before the shore, my sled broke through the ice and began to spray water. I continued to hold the throttle wide open and finally made it ashore. Once safe, I thanked God and asked Him to forgive me for my stupidity.
I made some pretty poor choices that night that put me in a life-threatening position. First, I failed to learn about the hazards in the area. I should have talked with some other riders who were familiar with the trails before heading out. Second, I rode at night — alone! That was just plain stupid. Third, I didn’t tell anyone where I was going. Had I not returned, no one would have known where to even begin looking for me. This incident happened before everyone had cellphones, so I wasn’t even able to call for help. Fourth, I didn’t have an emergency kit with me. Flares, a fire starter, food, knives, blankets, etc., all would have come in handy had I been forced to stay on that island. Finally, I failed to do proper risk management. Doing so would have surely helped me realize what a huge mistake I was making by heading out that night.
I learned some important lessons from this adventure, the most important being that there is no substitute for risk management. No one expects you to stay locked inside your house out of fear that something bad may happen to you. Get out and explore the outdoors. Create some new adventures and enjoy life — just do it safely.