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Training On Ice

Ice on the mighty St. Lawrence is beginning to thaw, but as light snow fell on the morning of February 22, nearly thirty rescue personnel gathered in the recreation room of the United States Coast Guard – Alexandria Bay Station, which overlooks the American Narrows. Dogs roamed the grounds while inside coffee was being had and stories were being shared amongst those that were there for a day of training.

With the risk of falling through the ice becoming greater as spring pushes closer, the United States Coast Guard called upon the Jefferson County STAR unit, as well as the New York State Police dive team, in an effort to better prepare the units for real life ice rescue situations on the St. Lawrence River. Even Round Island’s own Dick Withington stopped by to say his hellos and make everyone aware that he and his airboat were always there to help, if needed.

As Coast Guard BMC Brian Breheny called everyone together just after 10 a.m. and went over the various equipment to be used, outside the temperature slightly began to rise and imitation danger lurked.

Just after 11 a.m. the crews slipped into their wet gear. Some suits looked like summer wet suits (STAR), while some resembled a young child’s winter snow suit (Coast Guard) and others simply looked like nothing more than rubber car tires smoothed into the shape of a body suit (NYSP). Finally they would put on their ice cleats, grab the throw ropes and make their way down the long driveway and out onto the ice along the east edge of Wellesley Island. After walking some sixty yards on the snow covered ice, the freezing cold water of the river became accessible and the first victim 'fell' in.

 "Sir, sir, my name is Mike and I am with the Coast Guard," shouted the lead communicator of the 4-person rescue team. "We’re coming out to get you."

 The victim, played by a STAR team member, bobbed calmly along the icy edge and responded when spoken to. When asked how long he had been in the water, he replied to say just a few minutes, allowing the rescue team to act accordingly. This would be the easiest rescue of the mid-afternoon.

As more victims went into the water, their situations grew tougher. Some pretended to be unresponsive; some were floating down the river on mini icebergs. A pair of Coast Guard members portrayed a brother and sister who were ice fishing and neither could swim. To make the situation worse, the panicked and disoriented sister refused to leave the icy edge after being rescued making the rescue of her brother more and more difficult for the Coast Guard as they tried to remove him from the water.

At one point the teams were confronted with a situation that saw a multiple number of people in the water and two that would not respond.

"What is this Lake Erie training" one of the Coast Guard members jokingly shouted out referring to the early February Coast Guard rescue of more than 130 ice fishermen out on the frozen Great Lake.

For nearly two and a half hours, lives were saved and saved again.

Stress from making the numerous rescues wore on those participating, proving that whether it is training or real life all rescues are to be taken seriously. As a method of relaxation a snowball fight ensued between Coast Guard members while the STAR team broke off large sections of ice and stood on the icebergs as if penguins in the Arctic.

Following their time of play and before the day was out, BMC Breheny and Mark Knowles of STAR along with two others decided it was time to go for a cruise. Now this cruise would not be one you pay $20 to ride around and look at the scenery, but instead coast on the ice and splash in the water. They jumped in the aluminum airboat, started its engine and the wind began to blow as they pressed forward and went from shore to ice and then into the various spots of open water. The growl of the airboat could be heard echoing off of the islands nearby as they sailed along the shoreline, while back on shore the teams accounted for all of their gear and packed up. Perhaps knowing the next time the group would be together would be in a real life situation.

The United States Coast Guard - Alexandria Bay Station covers the St. Lawrence River from Massena to Lake Ontario and is a part of the Ninth District which oversees the entire Great Lakes region. In all, over 25 people are stationed on Wellesley Island under the command of BMC Brian Breheny and are trained to assist in all possible rescue situations, both on the ice and in open water.

By Michael Folsom/

This is Michael Folsom's third article for TI Life.  Michael is an avid ship watcher who currently hosts a web site, where he tracks ships and reports on various items while on the shores of the River. His work has been featured in the Thousand Islands Sun, as well as on and We recommend you look at Mikes website - he has a countdown clock to signal the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway Season 2009.


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