Patience, gear, experience rank high with professional ice divers
By James M. Odato
The wind whipped across Saratoga Lake, snuffing out John Sullivan’s cigarette. A quarter-mile from shore, he hovered over a hole in the 10-inch-thick ice. Determination lined his face as he searched for the quad that had eluded his crew of divers for 90 minutes. It should have become the second four-wheeler they’d salvaged that late February day.
“Ninety percent is locating it,” Sullivan said. He pointed to a spot on the ice 30 paces away and barked directions to four men with ropes, chainsaws and augers.
Sullivan, 55, whose day job is bulldozer operator, has been diving for three decades. He is one of a small league of divers who drop into lakes in and around the Adirondacks in all seasons. They pull up things as small as muddy diamond rings and as large as 65-foot-long tugboats.
It’s risky, and lucrative.
In winter, ice divers are usually fishing for snowmobiles. But owners of all-terrain vehicles, cars and trucks also call for help getting machines from icy lake bottoms — both because the machines are valuable and because the Department of Environmental Conservation threatens fines.
DEC said an owner can be charged with illegal disposal of solid or hazardous waste, water pollution or criminal mischief. Fines range from a few hundred dollars up to $37,500 per day, depending on the circumstances. Divers said the DEC officers tend to persuade rather than penalize. The department was unable to provide ticketing data.
A couple of years ago, John Ball, a scuba instructor and shop owner, retrieved 11 snowmobiles over two days from the ice at Great Sacandaga Lake. He recruited Sullivan to assist.
“I don’t call anybody who’s a hobbyist,” Ball said.
The art of ice diving and retrieval requires patience, plus expensive gear and experience. Ice divers need a dry suit — looser fitting than a wet suit, and with lining — plus air tanks and vehicles. One diver dons $7,000 in gear before splashing into a hole. Ball charges $1,000 to show up and an hourly fee from there. Insurance companies often cover the bill.
Ball, 55, has been diving into area lakes since 1991.
Ball has been hired to retrieve fishing rods, boats, outboard motors. Some clients have asked him to get prescription sunglasses or cell phones, and he tells them it’s not worth the expense.
He’s discovered lots of fishing lures. “Quite often, divers are hooked,” he said.
Once, a woman paid him to bring back her engagement ring. She dropped it at Log Bay in Lake George. Using a metal detector and a strong light, Ball rescued it 30 feet down in two hours.
Ice hunting is different, said Hamilton County Sheriff Karl Abrams, who has been diving around his hometown of Piseco for 30 years. He knows how the ice thickness varies because many of water bodies are fed by streams. The churning makes visibility difficult and can lead to thin spots.
He’s pulled up bodies while on the clock for the sheriff’s department. But on his own time, he’s charged clients for retrievals. Winter divers, he said, rely on auger holes and entrance holes as guides. “It like a neon light,’’ he said.
He’s brought several snowmobiles to the surface from Adirondack waters. Many seem to go in during ice fishing contests or winter carnivals, or after someone has imbibed.
Once, he did some detective work to find a snowmobile in 88 feet of water. The owner remembered little beyond exiting a lakeside bar and suddenly driving into a hole.
After pressing the client about the description of the tavern, Abrams figured out the motorized sled was lost in Piseco Lake.
“It went in in January and we didn’t get it out until July,” he said. Abrams used sonar — a fish finder—and brought it up. He towed it to a mechanic, who got it started in 15 minutes.
Many snowmobiles, and some snowmobilers, are not resuscitated.
“We have a pretty consistent message that lakes are not trails, that they are extremely dangerous,” said Dominic Jacangelo, executive director of the New York State Snowmobile Association. Some snowmobilers not only drive on frozen lakes, they risk sledding over open water. “Fools,” he said.
An ice diver who advertised in the association’s digital magazine would probably get plenty of work, he said.
Jim Rolf, the association’s trail coordinator, recorded six fatalities of snowmobilers who fell through the ice, two in Tupper Lake, in the winter of 2017-18. (Media reports suggest the number of deaths that year was higher.) All six of the drownings, Rolf said, involved people snowmobiling on lakes they knew well.
In the Saratoga Lake dive for the quad, John Sullivan partnered with Tim Van Dusen.
Van Dusen, 54, a truck driver, said he got his start ice diving when a couple of buddies dropped their snowmobiles 30 years ago. He got certified as soon as he could and met Ball. They’ve teamed on plenty of jobs, once fetching a sunken airplane, another time a tugboat. Twenty years ago, they retrieved a Buick Skyhawk out of the ice of Lake George the day after Valentine’s Day.
Van Dusen knows the fear of being below the ice. To get vehicles up, divers use different techniques — air bags, winches, cables, ropes. Once, he used a cut-off plastic 55-gallon drum. It filled with air and yanked him toward the surface when the rope wrapped around his arm. He hit his face on the bottom of the ice, jostling his mask. “If I wasn’t able to reach over to the ice hole, it wouldn’t have been good,” he said.
The quad he and Sullivan searched for on Saratoga Lake belongs to Erik Hardcastle, 31, who lives along the lake. His father has been active with the lake’s preservation for 40 years.
Hardcastle lost his 2005 Polaris Sportsman, and a sled loaded with 60 pounds of gear, his wallet and a popup shed, when he was setting up for an ice-fishing tournament in February just after sunrise. He would have used his snowmobile, but there was no snow that day.
He fell in with his four-wheeler about 6 a.m. “They tell you not to panic,” he said. “It scared the crap out of me.” He managed to squirm onto the ice, walk home, change clothes and call for a diver.
Van Dusen, the crew chief, and Sullivan showed up the next weekend, but couldn’t find the quad after several dives on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. Hardcastle borrowed an underwater camera, drilled several holes and located the Polaris. The ice was just 2.5 inches thick at the site, Van Dusen said. He and Sullivan returned for a successful recovery eight days after the quad sank.
Hardcastle took stock. He was glad he had been wearing a floatable jacket. “You gotta watch it because there are springs all over,” he said. “I’m going to definitely buy the floating pants, get the full suit.”