RUMFORD – Despite chilly temperatures this month that started growing ice on area ponds and lakes early, the Maine Warden Service is urging extreme caution when venturing onto any ice covering state waterways.

According to acting Col. Gregory Sanborn, many of Maine’s lakes and ponds may appear to be frozen. But safe ice conditions can’t be assumed due to significant snowfall in recent weeks, Sanborn said in a report released Thursday by Deborah Turcotte, acting director of public information and education for the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Although many night temperatures have been below freezing, snow pack insulates the ice, slowing the freezing process on lakes and ponds.

“Typically, we have freezing temperatures at night for several weeks before we have snow, and those low temperatures cause the lakes and ponds to freeze. Not this year,” Sanborn said. “We’ve had significant snowfalls in the last few weeks that are forming a layer of insulation on thin ice – almost like a blanket – and that is slowing down the rate of freezing.”

Ice conditions vary greatly throughout the state. While ice may be safe in some spots, Sanborn said ice can be very dangerous elsewhere. That’s why the warden service is recommending that people check ice thickness before heading out onto it for any activity.

That’s especially true for snowmobile riders.

Last winter, on Feb. 24, three Massachusetts men had been riding snowmobiles all day and traveled across Long Lake, Brandy Pond and Crystal Lake, all of which were frozen, according to an Associated Press story.

They ran out of ice at Thompson Point on Sebago Lake. Two made it to safety, skimming across open water. But the third, Paul Blanco of Carlisle, didn’t make it across the water on his sled.

Blanco’s was the only drowning during the 2006-07 snowmobile season.

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