It happens every winter: Snowmobilers brave what they believe is a frozen waterway in McHenry County and plunge through the ice.
Before the latest snowfall, area police and fire departments had reported more than a dozen instances where snowmobilers tried and failed to cross or ride the icy waters.
Mild weather combined with a slow start to measurable snowfall has prevented most bodies of water from completely freezing, local snowmobile experts said, making conditions risky at best for riders.
“Unless you know it’s safe, you just shouldn’t be out there because the waters just aren’t what they used to be,” said Dick Arseneau, trail master for the McHenry County Snowmobile Association. “We all make mistakes, but safety has to be the top priority.”
As much as 6 inches of snow fell in some areas of the county this week, creating prime snowmobiling conditions on the more than 200 miles of trails in the county.
Riding the trails requires at least 4 inches of snow if the ground is frozen and 6 inches if it’s not.
For waterways, at least 6 to 8 inches of ice is recommended.
Determining whether water is frozen enough for snowmobiling is an ever changing process, said Dave Rudolph, president of the snowmobile association.
“This is the weirdest year for ice,” he said. “I would advise everyone to stay off the ice because some areas are good, but other places that normally have the ice don’t. There is no real way to measure it.”
Rainfall, warmer-than-normal temperatures and low water levels contribute to poor ice, he said.
So far this season, two snowmobiles went into the Fox River on the southwest side of Burtons Bridge when ice extended 200 feet from shore but there was more than 400 feet of open water. And two riders on a snowmobile fell into the water trying to cross Wonder Lake.
“I’ve been up here for 14 winters and have yet to see one winter without snowmobiles in the water,” said Capt. Brett Scroggins of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Conservation Police. “The ice is unpredictable. It’s never worth the risk.”
The chance of serious injury in plunging through ice isn’t the only thing riders have to worry about – it could put a serious dent in their pocketbook. IDNR police an impose serious penalties and fines.
“There are instances when someone is on the ice and it’s purely accidentally,” Scroggins said. “If they cooperate, get the snowmobile removed, and do what they should, no enforcement is generally taken.”
But when investigators determine that drivers intentionally cross open water or operate in an area where it is obvious that they will go on the water, they can be charged with misdemeanor careless operation of a snowmobile and environmental crimes if they do not have the snowmobile properly removed from the waterway.
Those charges carry fines above the cost of removing a snowmobile from the water, and “can really add up,” Scroggins said. “We try and concentrate our efforts to people intentionally going over open water.”
Traveling across the water is not illegal. But snowmobilers who attempt it should test the ice beforehand, travel in a single-file line and not speed across the surface, officials advise. In most cases, a rider’s best bet is to avoid waterways entirely, they said.
“You just shouldn’t be out there,” Arseneau said. “That is why our association works so hard to maintain the land trails, so you don’t have to go on the water.”
For information about the daily conditions of the trails, call 815-334-7669.