A Kenora, Ont., man escaped with minor injuries after plunging through ice to the bottom of Lake of the Woods in a skid-steer loader earlier this month.

Jake Garrow, owner-operator of Kenora company Custom Drilling, was pushing snowbanks back on an ice road on Deception Bay about 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 6 with a skid-steer loader, a small front-end loader suitable for plowing and other jobs. Deception Bay is about 26 kilometres west of Kenora in northwestern Ontario.

Plunge to the bottom

"The ice broke from underneath me," Garrow, 34, said. "Before I could really realize what's happening, the water was already coming in the front door. I tried to open it; it wouldn't open."

Garrow said machines like skid-steer loaders are designed to help drivers get out in this sort of situation — a cord releases the back window so it can be popped out.

However, Garrow's loader sank quickly to the bottom, a depth he later learned was 32 metres. By the time he tried to find the cord, it was too dark to see anything. So rather than fumble around in the dark with water rushing in, Garrow turned and smashed the rear window with his elbow.

"Before I could turn around to get out, I think I was already on the bottom," he said.

"I crawled out the back of the machine through the mud, and slowly managed to swim up, and I managed to find the hole," he said. "For three-quarters of the way up, I couldn't see anything." 

No mitts, jacket

Garrow pulled himself out of the water onto the ice.

"I had no mitts or jacket or anything," Garrow said. "Just my ski pants, work boots and my hoodie."

It was about –30 C that morning, he said.

"I just kind of started walking towards the highway," Garrow said. "There was nobody around. All my guys were back at the shop."

"I walked back to the highway. There were about eight or nine cars that basically just went around me; I wasn't able to flag anyone down, nobody would stop."

Garrow was eventually spotted by a contractor whom he'd done some work for, and was given a ride home.

'Just happened to find a weak spot'

Garrow said the ice road he was working on had been plowed just the night before, and the ice was 30 to 35 centimetres thick.

"I just happened to find a weak spot," he said. "This year, they've got a lot of running water. They keep opening up the dam, so the ice changes almost on a nightly basis. Sometimes, there are bad spots you don't necessarily know about."

Garrow's ordeal left him with a popped eardrum and some frostbite on his ear, he said.

Garrow said he has fallen through ice in the past, but in those instances, he was checking ice thickness and fell into shallow water while walking.

"You just go through up to your knees, fall through up to your waist, that kind of thing," he said. "I've worked on the ice for a lot of years now, and I knew at some point I would go through again."

"I just never really thought it would be that deep or that difficult."

But the incident hasn't affected Garrow's willingness to work out on the ice. He was back plowing on Jan. 10.

"It's just one of things, I guess," he said. "Hope it doesn't happen again."

Ontario's Ministry of Environment and Climate Change said Garrow reported the incident to its local office in Kenora.