Lifesaving Society Manitoba is urging everyone to stay off the ice in the southern portion of the province.

Even though daytime highs are for the most part still staying below freezing, spokesperson Dr. Christopher Love says in many places the ice is weaker than it appears. Dr. Love explains that all winter long, the ice is always slightly unpredictable. But, by the time we get to March and early April, it becomes very, very unpredictable and potentially very dangerous.

Dr. Love says we are getting a lot more sunshine these days, and even if the air temperature does not climb above the freezing mark, the hot sun is already melting the ice and weakening its bond. He notes the mild weather during the day followed by some very cold nights can create air bubbles or cracks.

"That extreme yoyo of temperatures actually stresses the ice out even more and can cause failure or damage that is really bad for if you are going out on the ice," he says. 

For those who head out on the ice yet this spring, Dr. Love says it is really important that you are wearing something that will make you float. This could include a floatation snowmobile suit, often referred to as a floater coat, or it could be a life jacket or PFD (Personal Floatation Device) worn over top of your winter clothing. 

Another tip is to not go out on the ice alone. However, if you end up going with a friend, Dr. Love says you should still let someone else know where you are going, what you are doing and when you plan to return so that if you do not return in time, they can summon help. 

Dr. Love also recommends having some basic rescue gear along, which could include a walking stick or some rope that is about five to 10 metres long.

He says if you fall through the ice, one of the keys to survival is keeping your head above the surface. Dr. Love says the first thing that is going to happen is you will go into cold shock. The cold water fighting against your warm body is going to cause you to gasp for air or hyperventilate. He notes you will not be able to control your breathing for the first minute or two. 

"And while you are gasping, if you cannot keep your head above the water, it's very easy for you to take in a tonne of water and you can drown in like that first 30 seconds by getting water up your nose, into your lungs," he explains. 

While you are floating in the water, he says you should try to remain calm and figure out where it makes the most sense to climb out of the water. He suggests carrying ice picks along so that if you fall through, you can dig into the ice to gain traction and then pull yourself back onto the ice. 

Generally speaking, Dr. Love says it will make the most sense to pull yourself out of the water at the same place where you fell in. He says you already know that the ice supported you until it broke, and so attempting to exit the water from that spot makes the most sense. 

Once you make it back onto the ice, Dr. Love says you should try to do a belly slide, similar to what you might see a penguin or polar bear do, which enables you to remove yourself from danger by crawling or rolling. 

If you happen to witness someone going through the ice, Dr. Love says you should not rush out there and try to be an instant hero. Rather, he suggests taking stock of the situation and trying to determine what you can use to aid in the rescue and being sure to maintain enough distance so that you do not end up in the water as well. 

He adds it is important to tell the person who has fallen through the ice, to remain calm and that you are calling for help. Then, Dr. Love says you should call 911 and attempt a rescue by reaching something out to the victim while maintaining as much distance as possible. 

If you are extending a stick to the victim, he says you should do that while on your stomach. Otherwise, they may pull you into the water, while grabbing hold of the stick. Lying on your stomach also gives you more traction and adds to the distance that you can reach out while remaining safe. 

"If you get too close, the ice is going to break under you and then we've got two people in freezing cold water," he says. "And then we have multiple victims and that's not a recipe for a good outcome."

Dr. Love says people are often surprised at how long someone can survive in freezing cold water, even in the dead of winter. He says most people, unless they have very specific underlying medical conditions, will not become hypothermic for approximately one hour after going through the ice. And, if you are well insulated and wearing really good winter clothing, he says you may be able to survive up to two and a half hours in the water. 

"Because you can retain some of your body heat even though you are soaking wet if you have the appropriate insulation levels and the appropriate floatation gear to keep your head up so that you can breathe," he explains. 

According to Lifesaving Society Manitoba, approximately 30 per cent of drownings in our province occur between the months of October and April, and a lot of them happen during the periods of freeze-up and thaw. 

"It's between two and five deaths every winter of people going through the ice," he notes. "That's something that we would dearly love to bring down to zero."