First Aid and Outdoor Safety…

Ice fishing is a perfectly relaxing pastime for all age groups. But far too few are aware of a silent killer that stalks our ice shanties, a killer that also pays unexpected visits to cabins and pop-up campers.

Every winter dozens across the Midwest die terribly tragic deaths while pursing their outdoor snow and ice passion. These deaths are avoidable.

We pay attention to thin, cracked, squishy or honeycombed ice. We watch for ominous ice pressure ridges. Some of us are more proactive and thread ice rescue picks dangling on ropes through our sleeves – like children’s mittens; ready for an instant self-rescue from frigid waters. Comfortable life jackets and inflatable life vests activated by a rip-cord, GPS and signaling devices are gaining popularity as higher tech gear finds its way to the ice. But none of these “I’m going to be safe!” actions will keep us safe from the killer on ice that takes our breath away.

In a few weeks news media will have images of U.S. Coast Guard helicopters and Harrison Township firefighters on their annual ritual of plucking ice fishers off floes in Lake St. Clair. We joke about their bold or sometimes stupid behavior: “Don’t they know the ice floes break?” We ask and shake our heads.

But it’s the silent killer in the shanty, a danger we can’t see, hear, sense or smell that can lay us out stiff as perch on ice if we give it half a chance. Ignoring that danger is far more foolhardy than behavior of bold Lake St. Clair fishermen. The mechanism of death starts with the simple act of keeping warm by burning fuel.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a slightly lighter than air killer gas. You can be exposed without knowing it. CO is the most prevalent poisonous gas in our atmosphere and is responsible for more accidental poisoning deaths than any other poison. According to the Center For Disease Control, an average of 500 Americans die each year with 15,000 more transported to emergency rooms. Carbon monoxide is not just a danger in homes with poorly vented or failing furnaces or from cars in garages with engines left running. If you ice fish in a shanty think carbon monoxide, for ice shanties are the perfect small area enclosure for lethal exposures.

You need just one thing to start the cycle that turns the pleasure of ice fishing into a tragedy: a portable heater. Propane radiant heaters are the usual culprits but ANY portable heating device; whether it burns propane, kerosene, white gas, coal, wood, charcoal or natural gas can lead to death.

The process starts with two easy steps:

Step One: Your heater consumes oxygen in the air.

Step Two: Carbon monoxide is generated. Without adequate ventilation these two steps present a clear and present danger and rapidly become a deadly combination.

To fully understand how to alleviate the hazard you must first appreciate the subtle way CO kills. And it can kill rapidly. And it can happen to you.

It’s getting late. Perch are biting. You light your heater to ward off the day’s chill. CO molecules from incomplete combustion enter your lungs. The carbon monoxide is harmful when breathed because it displaces oxygen in the blood and deprives your heart, brain and vital organs of oxygen. Large amounts of CO can overcome you in just minutes, causing you to lose consciousness and suffocate, but in most shanty scenarios, the process is more insidious. Flu like symptoms take hold: headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness and drowsiness. (Blurred vision, shortness of breath and tightness in the chest may be felt – or may not.) Drowsiness accelerates the medical emergency because few recognize drowsiness as a significant symptom of CO poisoning. And with the drowsiness comes a failing of judgment. Some ice fishers attribute the initial drowsiness to the pleasurable cozy warmth of a heated shanty or the slow pace of fish activity, or perhaps a bit of alcohol consumption. Being sleepy and not feeling well you settle back and close your eyes. In the morning sheriff deputies respond to the lake to see why you failed to return home. Your car is still there. And you too are easy to find. You are in the shanty lying next to a good mess of perch. The coroner later confirms your cause of death: carbon monoxide poisoning. Your last recollection was most likely just that sleepy not feeling so good feeling. You are now just another statistic.

Whether you are jigging in a shanty, sleeping in a pop-up camper or getting back to nature in a snug windproof snow shelter you are at risk for carbon monoxide if you are heating with any fossil fuel. Ice fishing enthusiasts often favor a sunflower or bulb shaped heating element on top of a 20 pound barbecue tank that can be hauled out to the shanty. These are among the most dangerous heaters in an enclosed environment. Unvented sources of combustion, catalytic heaters, charcoal grills, kerosene stoves and propane stoves along with a host of jerry-rigged heating devices place you at risk.

The Safe Camp Coalition ( states, “We urge fishermen and campers to read their heater packaging and operating instructions carefully and only use heaters approved for safe indoor use.”

High winds can cause problems with vented burners, blowing the CO back down. Never assume that low-oxygen shut offs on newer models will always protect you.

Tragedies teach us that to be safer we should carry with our ice equipment a battery powered CO alarm for use in the shanty. These devices can be purchased for under $35 and sound an alarm before levels render you unable to react. CO detectors are as valuable in a heated shanty as a life jacket is on a stormy sea.

If you or others in your party experience symptoms that are flu like, heed the words of emergency room physician Kevin Cranmer of St. John Macomb-Oakland Hospital when he warns, “If carbon monoxide poisoning is suspected, get out of the ice shanty and into the fresh air. It is extremely important to be aware of the warning signs and seek immediate medical attention due to the risk of permanent heart or brain damage and even death.”

Never ignore symptoms. Be extra wary of CO exposure if more than one in your shanty or cabin feels sick. If severe symptoms present, such as a throbbing headache or a lethargic feeling or vomiting you need medical care. Moving outside is not enough. Death can come in minutes if nothing is done. Call 911. If you have access to oxygen and a tight fitting mask do what the first arriving paramedics will do: Administer 100% oxygen. Start rescue breathing if your partner is breathing irregularly, or not breathing. The rate: one breath every five seconds.

If there is no breathing and no pulse start CPR.

Although The Michigan Department of Community Health is emphasizing CO awareness with their new flyer, Ice-Fishing & Carbon Monoxide, the ultimate responsibility does not belong to the state or organizations. It’s up to you.

Jonathan Schechter is a paramedic/naturalist certified in Advanced Wilderness Life Support and a member of the Wilderness Medical Society.