When a backyard ski went wrong

Two winters ago there was lots of snow, so most of my skiing happened in my backyard. My husband, Bruce, and I feel fortunate to have miles of trails on more than 300 acres of mixed forest, our property divided by a winding brook. One morning, we strapped on our skis and headed out behind our house for our daily dose of fresh air. As usual, our goldendoodle, Bucky, was excited to join us.

It was a perfect skiing day, with a blue sky and temperatures in the teens. The conditions were excellent. We glided along what we call the Boneyard Loop, Jenny’s Lane and KC Willow Run—all trails on the south side of the brook. After observing fresh deer tracks, we skied to the spot we use to cross to the other side of the brook. There, open water surprised us. Bruce skied to the right and Bucky and I to the left in search of a safe place to cross. Within a minute, I called out to Bruce that I’d found a beaver dam and it looked like we could cross safely over it.

At the edge of the brook I used my poles to test the crust of snow. In an instant, the shelf on which I was standing crumbled, and I slid into the cold, icy water. It took my breath away. 

The water reached my waist. It took me a moment to catch my breath as I lay on my back on the edge of the brook and wiggled my legs, trying to pull my skis upright. They were caught under a log and I couldn’t pull them out. The more I moved, the more I slipped beneath the huge log. I knew I was in trouble.

For the first time in my life I yelled, “Help!” and really meant it.

Bruce quickly appeared at the edge of the brook, testing the snow and ice to keep from breaking through. I continued trying to pull my skis from under the log, but kept slipping farther in. There was no way to kick off my skis and no way to take off my boots with their ties, zippers and straps.

Bruce held out his pole, I grabbed on and he began pulling me out. Meanwhile, Bucky danced around and we shouted for him to stay back. 

Finally, I was out of the frigid water and soaked up to my armpits. All of this probably happened in just minutes, but it seemed much longer. 

We didn’t have extra clothes. Bruce said we had to move immediately, and quickly. I’m the first to admit that I’m a relatively slow skier, and having asthma slows me down even more. My inhaler had been immersed in the water, so I didn’t try to use it. I suppose the adrenaline had kicked in, because I’ve never skied so fast in my life. My skis were wet, so I worried they’d cake with snow. Why they didn’t, I’ll never know.

As I skied, I kept thinking, Don’t stop. Don’t stop. I knew my temperature would drop further if I did. We had a 15-minute ski to get back to the house. I believe it was my wool clothes that saved me. I wore top and bottom wool base layers, a wool hat, wool socks and double-layer wool mittens. 

At the house, Bruce pried the frozen boots off my skis and we hurried inside. I was unable to remove my boots myself, so Bruce unbuckled, untied and unzipped them, pulling them off my feet. I removed my now-frozen clothes off my very red skin. I resisted the temptation to jump in the hot tub, shocking my body, and instead let the room temperature warm me up slowly.

As I look back on that day, a few things come to mind: I’m glad I wasn’t alone—I often ski by myself. I’m not sure I would have made it out. Also, I agree with the saying “cotton kills”—my wool clothing kept me from freezing. And water crossings, no matter how familiar you think you are with the terrain, should be approached with caution in all seasons.

I’m hopeful that we’ll have an abundance of snow this winter, but my icy dip will forever be in the back of my mind as I navigate this landscape on skis.    


The Department of Environmental Conservation offers the following tips:

Never stand on ice less than four inches thick, though even thicker ice can be compromised if covered in layers of snow.

Avoid moving water, including boathouse

bubblers; shorelines are often the first to melt.

Be cautious of following other people’s tracks on unfamiliar ice.

Wear layers of moisture-wicking clothing and carry ice picks to use as leverage if you fall through the ice.

In freezing water you have limited time before hypothermia sets in. Don’t panic. If possible, self-rescue by positioning your body (ideally with skis off) horizontal to the ice shelf. Swim onto the ice.

Don’t stand, but roll toward safety, dispersing your weight and keeping your center of gravity low.

Once out of the water, call for help. Find a heat source, remove wet clothes and drink warm liquid to heat the body from the inside out.

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