Snowmobiling in Fish Lake?

I’ve written about the small commercial diving jobs we are called to do from time to time. Last January we got a call about recovering a snowmobile that had fallen through the ice at Fish Lake. Fish Lake is located about three hours south of Salt Lake near Richfield, just about right in the center of Utah. It is a very pretty area at a high elevation, about 9000 feet. We usually dive there once or twice in the middle of the summer.

As I have said before, beware of those who tell you, “I know exactly where it is!” Well this time they did know. They had been out the week before and must have hit a soft spot in the ice. It was a slow sinking experience that they had, not a sudden break and fall in. In fact, we were still able to make out where the ice had re-frozen in the original hole. We were really lucky that the sled went down where it did. Fish Lake is pretty big, pretty high and pretty deep. As I mentioned, the elevation is close to 9000 feet, that would add about 25 feet to our dive planning due to the rules of diving at altitude. Plus, there was ice. Ice is nice, but not for recovery work at any great depth. So we were lucky that it was at the far south end, about 200 yards off shore. That far off shore the depth was still only about 15 feet deep. We were able to park right next to the shore and take snowmobiles out on the lake to haul ourselves and our gear. I know what you’re thinking, didn’t one snowmobile already fall in? The ice was about 8-10 inches thick so we figured we were safe. .

We got to the lake at 11 am and it was a beautiful, sunny, relatively warm day. We proceeded to get our gear out to the lake. A hole was drilled with an ice auger right over where we thought the sled was. We stuck a fish camera down the hole and sure enough, we could see the sled just sitting there. Now, the only problem with the south end of Fish Lake is that there is a lot of lake grass in that area that grows up to 10-15 feet tall and the sled was right in the middle of it. More on the grass later.

We decided to make our hole about 15 feet away from where the sled went in since we would need strong ice to haul the sled onto once we brought it up. We also had to make the hole big enough so the sled would fit through. The plan was to bring the sled up skis first so we could get the skis out first and use them as a fulcrum and lever the back end out. This was the plan. We drilled four holes in a rectangle shape and with a chainsaw cut the ice between the holes and pushed the block down and under the ice. As you may remember from my first ice diving adventure, I told you about how the divers are roped together and how a line tender lets in and out rope as we swim. Robert Jensen and I were the divers, Bret Hiner was the safety diver, Butch Brown was the line tender and Bill Mueller was our “fix it guy”.

Lake grass. There is nothing thicker than Fish Lake lake grass. As soon as we entered the water it wrapped around our legs and it felt like we were kicking through mud with 10 pound ankle weights on. There was a 12 inch gap between the top of the grass and the ice and this was where we swam. We swam around a bit but didn’t see the sled. (Remember, lake grass can grow 15 feet tall.) Then we saw the cord from the fish camera coming down a hole and disappearing into the grass. There, down in all the grass we saw the windshield of the sled. We tied a rope onto the sled and went back to the hole for the lift bags

Fish LakeNow here is where it got fun. It was easy to get to and from the top of the sled, the bottom however was caught in so much grass that every time we tried to get down to the skis, we would get some much grass wrapped around us that it was hard to move around. That would make us breathe harder with our regulators, which caused mine to start to free-flow. (Not quite living up to the antifreeze claim the manufacturer made.) No problem, I teach students to breathe off a free-flowing reg on night 3 of every class, so I’ve had plenty of practice at it. With all the grass, there was no way to get to the skis to attach a lift bag. Instead I hooked it up to a bar that went across the back of the seat. You normally inflate a lift bag with air from your octopus and this is what I did. I pushed on the purge button and the reg started free-flowing into the lift bag. Only problem was it wouldn’t stop. You see, the cold air entering the regulator from the tank surrounded by freezing water caused the lever inside the reg to be stuck open. OK, no problem, two free-flowing regulators, maybe I should head up. Of course I’m caught up in the grass and I’m getting tired so I put a little air in my BCD to help me get up. Remember the problem with cold air from the tank with the octo? Well the same thing happened on my BCD, it started auto-inflating and up I went. Normally you would detach your inflate hose but with the gloves I was wearing, I lost all my dexterity, plus I wasn’t that deep.

So here I am, both regulators free-flowing, my BCD filled with air and bleeding out the dump valve, pushed up all the way against the ice. At this point I’m thinking, all things considered, I’d rather be in Cozumel. It took a minute or two but I was able to kick back to our hole. There the surface guys were able to turn off my air so the free-flowing stopped.

The lift bag had done it’s job and the sled was off the bottom. We had attached a strong rope to the sled and it ran all the way back to the cars at the edge of the lake. The owner of the sled had attached the rope to a powerful winch on his truck and when he turned on the winch we waited and sure enough, after a few minutes the sled began to appear. Now the only problem with a lift bag is that when it is fully inflated, it just breaks the surface with the top of it, the rest of the bag extends about 3 feet underwater. (Picture an iceberg, the tip is visible but the bigger part is underwater.) We had brought two commercial ladders down and an 8 X 8 beam. We set up the ladders on either side of the hole, set the beam across it, put a chain around it and attached a come-along to the chain. Then it simply a matter of raise it, stabilize, readjust, and raise it some more. It would have been easier if we had raised it runners first but with the grass, we did the best we could do.

Once it was out, we towed it back to the shore and our job was done. It had taken three hours exact from the time we parked the van till we started it up and headed home. It had been a fun job and an interesting experience. Little did we know we would be using the experience from this ice job for another ice job just three month later. But that’s a story for another column.

Let’s go diving!
Summer 2003