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Snow groomer operators make the right calls after Sandogardy Pond mishap

February 03, 2011
NORTHFIELD — Two local men had a close call when an 13,000-pound snow grooming machine owned by the Tilton-Northfield Arch Travelers Snowmobile Club went through the ice on Sandogardy Pond, despite their precautionary measures of testing the ice thickness before driving the machine out to groom the trail.

"They had a two foot bit and drilled several test holes before going onto the pond but evidently they hit a spring beneath the ice and went through," said Northfield Police Chief Steve Adams of the Jan. 21 incident.

Trail Master Steve Sawicki was one of the two club members aboard the 1999 trail groomer when it sank into the frigid waters. He said he was fine but embarrassed about the event and apologized for any inconvenience it may have brought to anyone.

The men were able to get out on their own and make it safely to shore where they then notified Fish and Game officials of the mishap. They also contacted the Department of Environmental Services, Northfield Police and the Tilton-Northfield Fire Department.

Adams said the men were conscientious in their handling of the incident and notified all the proper officials.

"They even called the fire department because they didn't want anyone to call about a hole in the ice and have rescue personnel out there looking for people," he said.

The club made arrangements with Dive Winnipesaukee of Wolfeboro to retrieve the vehicle. Extreme temperatures and sub-zero wind chills kept divers from attempting the vehicle extraction until last Thursday morning. Tom Wachsmuth said it took three of his divers several hours to lift the heavy machinery through six feet of water and onto the ice where it was then skidded to shore.

"We had to use 16,000 pounds of lift to get it off the bottom with lots of winches, chains, cables and air bags," he said.

Wachsmuth said his company has 18 years of experience in winter diving and vehicle retrieval. Last year alone they pulled 13 snowmobiles and nine other vehicles up from local ponds and lakes. So far this year they have been called for two other snowmobiles that had broken through the ice.

DES was also on hand as the divers did their job, monitoring the water for any leaks from hydraulics or fuel tanks. Spokesman Jim Martin said DES officials noted a slight sheen on the water at one point and used 25 absorbent pads to clean up the small spill. A boon was also placed in the water as a precaution to contain any further leaks that might have occurred during the operations.

"There really wasn't much evidence of a lot of product in the water and the whole thing went very well," Martin said.

DES will next review the contents of the diesel tank on board and check oil and other fluid levels to see how much, if any, might have gone into the pond, he said.

"Based on our visual observations though, it looks good though and there shouldn't be any worries," he said.

Fish and Game officials say the snow cover on lakes and ponds throughout the state make for dangerous conditions and people should take care when venturing onto the ice. Pockets of slush form between layers of snow and there are many weak spots in the ice where springs occur naturally and brooks or other inlets prevent the ice from thickening. Snow is an insulator and therefore ice does not always get as thick as other years when it covers the ice before a big freeze.

Last Saturday night a snowmobiler hit thin ice at the Sucker Brook inlet on Webster Lake and also went into the water. Officer Heidi Murphy responded to the scene and said heavy fog may have been a factor in that accident.

"It was really low visibility out there and he found himself over by the brook where he didn't intend to go but couldn't see it," she said.

Snowmobiles and ice fisherman who often drive a vehicle out to their bob houses need to take extra precautions and know both the ice conditions and the area they are driving on, she said. Pressure ridges and other obstacles can turn a fun afternoon into a rescue.

Sawicki said the snow grooming machine will be taken to a mechanic who will repair any damages and hopefully have the equipment up and running again as soon as possible. In the meantime the Lakes Region Snowmobile Club has offered their assistance in maintaining the trails through Northfield if needed.

DES said they would like to remind people that should they lose a vehicle though the ice they need to contact their department "in a reasonable amount of time" to advise them of the accident. People are required to get the machinery out of the water as soon as possible and it is advised they arrange to do so through an experienced salvage company in order to ensure everyone's safety.

Martin Lord & Osman
Salmon Press
Alton School
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