Treading on thin ice: Canada's harrowing history of falling through into the icy depths

Every Canadian on a frozen lake carries a healthy respect for the real possibility of falling through the ice. 

First-hand accounts provide gut-wrenching tales and a traditional way to survive

The R.D. Brooks Company freighting by horse on Montreal Lake in 1925. (E.L. Bowes Report, History Notes and Pictures)

This analysis piece was written by Merle Massie, an author, historian and farmer in west-central Saskatchewan.

For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Ice fishing. Snowmobiling. Sledding. Skiing. Snowshoeing. Skating. During the pandemic, our relatively mild winter has become our saving grace, as huge numbers of people are flocking outdoors.

If we are seeing winter's best, ice and snow can also give their worst. Every Canadian on a frozen lake carries a healthy respect for the real possibility of falling through the ice.

As a Saskatchewan historian, some of my favourite northern stories are drawn from winters past.

Imagine crossing a lake not in a warm truck or even a snowmobile, but in an open sleigh pulled by horses, with temperatures at –40 C and wind howling.

Saskatchewan's north was stitched to the south by overland winter transportation networks, many crossing frozen northern lakes.

First Nations, local farmers and commercial freighters took contracts to haul goods from the end of the rail line overland to northern businesses, schools, government, churches, commercial fisheries and mines.

An R.D. Brooks Company freight swing leaved Prince Albert in the 1920s. (Photograph by William James/Prince Albert Historical Society, Bill Smiley Archives J 1043)

Freighters carried everything: flour, sugar, tobacco, dry goods, linens, frozen food, blankets, kerosene and lamps, kitchenware, repair items, canoes, stoves and more. 

As gasoline engines became more common the hauls started to include outboard motors, and barrels of gasoline and oil. As mining and forestry grew, large equipment was also hauled north.

On the return trip, freighters would stop at commercial fishing camps and load up for the back haul – taking a paying load in both directions. 

These freight swings moved in all weather as soon as the ice was strong enough to hold the loads, usually after Christmas.

Freight trails deliberately crossed frozen northern lakes where teams could go straight and quick, covering ground that would be laborious and time-consuming through the bush.

They placed a plow in front of the lead team with two or three more teams with loaded sleighs pushing behind, gaving tremendous force to the plow, shearing through frozen snowbanks and ice ridges.

One of my favourite books is John A. Brooks's Strange Hunters: Life and Adventures in Northern Saskatchewan During the 1920s and 1930s, which holds a lot of northern freighting stories.

John Brooks came to Canada in 1919 as a 10-year-old and moved to the Meath Park area of Saskatchewan to homestead. He spent years working at northern fishing camps and freighting.

He collected stories into a self-published book, now a rare collector's item.

A Brooks Northern Transportation freight swing crossing Montreal Lake with a snow plow, c. 1920s. (Prince Albert Historical Society/Image E 641)

In one story, John was freighting across the ice on what is now Delaronde Lake. The ice was thin.

Unhitching the horses to go around the shore, the sleigh had to be pulled across the ice by the men, pulling ropes while spread out to not put pressure in any one spot.  A big Swede pushed the sleigh from behind with a long pole.

John, being the smallest, held up the sleigh shaft and pulled. Sure enough, he and the sleigh crashed through.

The massive Swede swooped in and jerked John out of the icy water. The men ran him to shore, built a fire and stripped him naked, working wet, cold skin over with empty oat bags to dry before dropping him into a suit of underwear, then into an eiderdown.

He was raring to go by the next morning.

In the 1930s and 1940s, horse-freighting gave way to cat-freighting with Caterpillar tractors. Each tractor could pull multiple sleighs plus a caboose, and could run night and day with a shift crew.

The cat-skinner, the driver on the Caterpillar tractor, had the most dangerous job. After all, if the cat hit slush pockets or open leads on the lakes, it would – and often did – drop right through.

A cat tractor went through the ice at Reindeer Lake c. 1948. (Cecil McCullock collection/Courtesy of Les Oystryk)

In Manitoba, Svein Sigfusson operated one of the largest cat-freighting businesses. Though he was an expert cat-skinner who set incredibly high safety standards for his employees, when things went wrong they went disastrously wrong.

In his book, Sigfusson's Roads, he told a terrifying tale of cat freighting on Reindeer Lake, watching a cat-skinner try to cross an open crack in the dark. Disaster struck.

"For an instant the blurred light beams seemed to deflect upward. Then they slowly faded out," he wrote.

"We ran to the spot and found only a fearful black hole in the ice. Far below, we could see a faint glimmer where the cat's headlights still shone through the murk. The cat was now nearly buried in 'loon shit,' – the bush term for the soft muck at the bottom of the lake.

"The skinner's body was down there, too; he had had an instant to jump but was not quick enough. He was caught in the suction of the sinking cat and was dragged straight to the bottom 27 fathoms down. He probably perished within moments in the paralyzingly cold water. There was no chance of retrieving either the machine or the body."

While Sigfusson's sad tale of the cat skinner gives us all pause, John Brooks comes to our rescue with a nugget of hope and wisdom for those of us spending time out on the ice.

John's book explains what he calls 'A Cree Indian Method of Lifesaving" for when someone falls through ice when alone.

In a nutshell, he wrote that while our instinct is to crawl out forward, that just breaks more ice and you never get out.

He described a different method.

"Save your strength, lean back with arms outstretched, get the back of your head on the ice. Arch your back, get your shoulders clear, then push with your knee until you get a foothold," he wrote.

"Use your arms as in backstroke swimming. Distribute your weight. Do not try and stand up. Backstroke your way to safer ice."

In his book, Strange Hunters: Life and Adventures in Northern Saskatchewan During the 1920s and 1930s, John A. Brooks described a traditional Cree method of saving yourself after falling through the ice. (John A. Brooks/Strange Hunters: Life and Adventures in Northern Saskatchewan During the 1920s and 1930s)

To make his instructions even more clear, John drew and included an illustration.

"I have tried this method and it works," he added.

Maybe, just maybe, this method will save a life this winter. 

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Interested in writing for us? We accept pitches for opinion and point-of-view pieces from Saskatchewan residents who want to share their thoughts on the news of the day, issues affecting their community or who have a compelling personal story to share. No need to be a professional writer!

Read more about what we're looking for here, then email with your idea.

About the Author

Merle Massie is an author, historian and farmer in west-central Saskatchewan. She co-ordinates undergraduate research initiatives at the University of Saskatchewan.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.