Feb 6, 2013 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff WriterGeorge Fishbaugh of Thermopolis says he'll never drive on ice again.
"Even on a four-wheeler," he said this week. "If I can't walk out, I'm not going."
He made the resolution after a scary experience last weekend, when Fishbaugh's pickup truck broke through the ice on Ocean Lake in Fremont County. The 1998 Dodge remained in the water until Tuesday, when a crew from Auto & RV Specialties in Thermopolis succeeded in pulling it out.
Onto the ice
Fishbaugh said he had ventured onto the north side of the lake Friday morning, looking forward to a day of ice fishing with his friend Bob.
"It was about 10:30 a.m. when we got there," Fishbaugh said. "You could see where everybody's been driving out on the ice. I had a friend there the week before, and that's where they went."
They followed the tracks for about 475 yards until they came across an area of ice that seemed less stable.
"I could feel my wheels go through the slush, maybe a couple inches of slush," Fishbaugh said.
His companion also felt the change, but the men decided to continue on their way.
"We went on out and fished," he said. "When we came back, there was water sitting there."
He guessed that 3-5 inches of water had emerged from a spot where the ice had caved in.
"It broke actually while we were fishing," he said. "It broke for probably over a quarter of a mile through there."
When Fishbaugh attempted to drive over the area, he said his truck "just went down in."
"The water ... started going into the cab right away, clear up to the bottom of the seats," he said. "We were really scared."
Fishbaugh, 69, and his 76-year-old friend managed to get their doors open and escape from the vehicle, which settled into the icy hole but did not sink. Fishbaugh said the truck had its nose pointed downward into the water, facing a wall of ice that rose from the surface of the lake at a 45-degree angle.
"The ice going together was wedging together, so we weren't going clear to the bottom," Fishbaugh said. "My truck was still running, and it wasn't settling any farther."
Long, cold walk
Though the obstruction kept his vehicle from being submerged, Fishbaugh said the sheet of ice posed another problem: While his friend was able to get to shore quickly by scaling the sloped wall using spiked boots, Fishbaugh's own footwear was not sufficient for the task.
"I have chains I wear on the ice, but they were too slick," he said. "I couldn't get out. I tried three or four times."
Instead, he retrieved his keys from the truck and took a longer path back to shore, walking for about a quarter of a mile until he found more solid ice. He returned to his friend, who was waiting at the edge of the lake protected by some trees.
"We were wet clear up past our waists and the wind was howling," Fishbaugh said, adding that there was no cell phone coverage in the area. "You worry about hypothermia."
The men made their way to the highway and spent some more cold minutes waiting for a passerby to pick them up. After about eight vehicles had driven by, Fishbaugh said rancher Lyle David pulled over and took the stranded duo to his house. Fishbaugh called the towing company, and at about 4:30 p.m. Friday Auto & RV Specialties owner Bill Wells notified law enforcement of the situation.
Removing the truck
In his report to officials, Wells said the truck would be recovered by Saturday morning. But Fishbaugh said the workers ran into trouble during the operation, which ended up taking five days to complete.
On Saturday, they tried to pull the truck out of the water using a four-wheeler with a winch. When that didn't work, the crew returned Sunday with the A-frame they had built specifically for ice recoveries. Fishbaugh said the second attempt almost was successful.
"They got the wheels up on the edge of the ice and were going great," he said. "Then their A-frame broke."
Monday was spent repairing the A-frame, and on Tuesday the group returned for what would be their final try at the truck.
Fishbaugh said the vehicle, which he had just been repainted, will be a total loss. Not only did it sustain water damage, but Fishbaugh said the truck was dented several times as it was pulled from the water.
"I don't have insurance either -- I just dropped it six months ago when we bought another car," he said. "But the important thing is we both got out and were safe. Monetary things ... can be replaced."
Neil Williams, who works for Auto & RV Specialties, said he and his co-workers have plenty of practice pulling vehicles from the ice. Similar incidents occur several times each year, he said, recalling one client who required their services multiple times in one season.
"He had a Subaru, a pickup and a camper (go through the ice)," Williams said. "Then he went speeding by us in his Dodge Cummins with another camper attached. Two were on the same day."
Fremont County Sheriff's Capt. David Good said it's not uncommon for local law enforcement to take reports of submerged vehicles either.
"We lose four or five vehicles a year," he said, urging residents to use caution near iced-over bodies of water. "This time of year the ice starts to get milky, and you just can't trust it. You can hit a warm spot where the ice is thin while the rest of the lake has 22 inches on it."
Deputies aren't responsible for removing the vehicles, but Good said they respond to make sure the situation is safe before turning cases over to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Game and Fish representatives weren't available for comment, but Good said they will likely look into any pollutants Fishbaugh's truck may have leaked into Ocean Lake.
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