‘Things can go sideways quickly’: Safety specialist says skate cautiously on Banff’s frozen lakes

As temperatures cool, a visitor safety specialist in Banff, Alta., is warning people about the risks that come with skating on wild ice. 

Wild ice skating is a hobby for many Albertans out on the frozen mountain lakes of the Rockies. 

“It’s quite a thrill to be out on perfectly smooth ice flying along in a place that you can’t access any other time of the year on skates…it’s quite a unique experience,” says Conrad Janzen, visitor safety specialist, Parks Canada. 

But it’s not without risk, he says, and most of that risk has to do with falling through thin ice. Ice thickness can vary considerably, even over short distances, Janzen said. 

“Things can go sideways pretty quickly.” 

He says warmer conditions add risk, as the ice is thinner than it usually is this time of year. 

Parks Canada doesn’t monitor natural ice surfaces for safety or mark potential hazards, Janzen said. 

But there are ways to assess if it’s safe to skate. Janzen said ice should be about 15 centimetres thick for individuals, and about 20 centimetres thick for groups skating together or playing sports. 

He said ice thickness can be checked by looking at cracks in the ice — estimating how thick the ice is by how far down the crack appears to go — or by using an ice screw and drilling into the ice to physically check. 

The ice is beginning to freeze at Vermilion Lakes in Banff, Alta. Parks Canada says it does not monitor natural ice surfaces for safety or potential hazards. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

There are other ways to keep lake ice skating safe too, Janzen said. He encourages those skating on wild ice to wear a life jacket, carry a rope and have ice picks in case of an emergency.

“Those are really key for getting yourself out of the ice if you fall in. It can help you get a grip as you pull yourself back up onto thicker ice,” Janzen said.

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