A rash of snowmobiles going through lake ice has caused an unusual number of fatalities this winter.
By far, most snowmobile fatalities come from a combination of alcohol and speed. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Snowmobile Safety Administrator Gary Eddy says narrow, bumpy trails in the woods and lots of night riding make snowmobiling challenging.
"You have to be on your game at all times and have your senses on high alert," said Eddy. "Anytime you drink alcohol or throw alcohol in the mix there, you reduce your ability to focus and react and make good sound decisions and [you] set yourself up for failure."
So far this winter, 15 people have been killed snowmobiling in Wisconsin — up 50 percent from last year, although the comparison is misleading because of that season's low snowfall. A better gauge would be the 2010-11 season, when 17 people died. That would make this winter close to normal, except that four of the fatalities have come from people going through the ice — three on Lake Superior near Ashland in the past month. Two years ago, there was only one fatality caused by breaking through the ice.
Ashland County Sheriff Mick Brennan says lake ice thickness can change from a couple of feet to a couple of inches within a very short span. "There's nothing that you can do about the ice. It's an unpredictable piece of nature. Even people who know the ice — know the lake — will still have accidents out there. It's just unpredictable."
Brennan says it helps to ask the DNR Resources or local bait shops and hotels about lake ice before going out.
There are 220,000 registered snowmobilers in Wisconsin, plus 20,000 with out-of-state passes.