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SUV goes through ice on Lake Bemidji; no injuries reported

First vehicle of the year went through the ice off of Northwoods landing on Lake Bemidji early Thursday morning. Shown left Wes Wright helps vehicle owner Dave Chmielewski position wood beams to help them pull the Ford Explorer out of the ice.

BEMIDJI, Minn. -- You could almost hear the "I told you so" in Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp's voice Thursday morning.

He warned last week that the ice on Lake Bemidji wasn't strong enough to support the weight of a vehicle. On Thursday morning, an SUV driven by a 55-year-old Bemidji man proved his point as its front end broke through the ice about 100 yards off the shoreline from the Northwoods Landing.

The driver, Dave Chmielewski, safely made it out of the vehicle and to shore.

But the incident serves as a strong reminder that the ice on Lake Bemidji is still not safe for vehicles, Hodapp said.

"Right now, what you've got is a layer of good ice (on the bottom), then you've got a layer of slush, then you've got a layer of hard ... slush, where it's frozen," Hodapp said. "You can walk and ski and maybe even snowmobile on it ... but anything larger, a lot of times, you're going to break through."

Ice development was hampered due to heavy snowfall last week, creating an insulator for existing ice and a patchwork of especially thin spots throughout Lake Bemidji's surface. The snow weighed down the ice that had developed, creating slush.

Hodapp reiterated that the ice needs to be at least 12 inches thick to support a vehicle, and Lake Bemidji's "hard ice," under the slushy layers, is probably only about 4 inches thick.

"People need to be extremely cautious," he said. "They really need to investigate how thick the ice is by drilling the hole and using a spud (an ice chisel) and taking all the precautions necessary so they can save themselves if they go venturing out on the ice."

It was unclear exactly when Chmielewski's vehicle went through the ice. Hodapp said Chmielewski did not call the sheriff's office when the SUV broke through, but a passerby reported the vehicle's location at 7:39 a.m. Chmielewski was not at the scene when a deputy arrived about 15 minutes later. The deputy saw footprints leading to the shore, indicating the driver was likely safe.

After investigating further, the deputy did make contact with Chmielewski, who confirmed he was not injured or in distress. An orange "ticket" was placed on the vehicle to indicate that it had been checked and cleared.