BEMIDJI -- Compared to past years, this winter has been relatively painless, and now, the unseasonable warmth has led to the early melting of area lakes.

On Tuesday morning, April 6, Dick Beardsley Fishing Guide Service announced on Facebook that Lake Bemidji was completely ice free.

“That’s about three weeks ahead of normal,” Beardsley said in the post. “Should set up for a good opener on May 15. Most of the small and medium-size lakes have been open for the past five to seven days…”

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the median ice out date on Lake Bemidji is April 24. The earliest date on record was April 2, 2012, and the latest was May 22, 1950.

As anglers, kayakers, canoeists and other boaters prepare to get back in the water in the coming days, it’s critical to wear a life jacket and to remember that water temperatures are still cold enough to cause hypothermia.

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Over 30% of boating fatalities in Minnesota happen in cold water with a victim not wearing a life jacket, the Minnesota DNR website said.

On Friday, April 2, the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office reported in a release that three individuals were being treated for hypothermia after they capsized their canoe on Lake Marquette, which is located about one mile southwest of Bemidji. After the canoe capsized, all three made it safely back to shore, and all were wearing personal flotation devices (PFDs), the release said.

“This scenario ended well. Some unfortunately don’t. Cold water can kill,” Sheriff Ernie Beitel said in the release. “It is extremely enticing to canoeists, kayakers and other boaters to get back out on the lakes. Many may need to get their sea legs again.”

Beitel said the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office Boat and Water Patrol encourages all boaters to wear their PFDs at all times.

The release also warned of new floating or partially submerged obstructions to areas of water that didn’t have them previously. Logs, large tree limbs and bog can be moved by the ice as it goes out, causing obstructions to shift.

According to the Minnesota DNR, if you fall into cold water and are wearing a life jacket, this 1-10-1 principle may save your life:

  • 1 minute: Get breathing under control

  • 10 minutes: Assess the situation and make a plan. Perform the most important functions first, such as locating other party members. Self-rescue if possible. Practice emergency communications and signaling.

  • 1 hour (or more): Focus on slowing heat loss.

If the boat capsizes or a victim falls overboard, stay with the boat and try to reboard, as most capsized watercrafts will still float, and they’re easier for rescuers to locate.

If you have to remain in the water, do not attempt to swim unless it is to a nearby boat or floating object. Keep boots and clothes on. Almost all clothing will float for an extended period of time. While wearing a life jacket, float on your back with your head and feet out of the water.

Reduce the effects of cold water immersion by assuming the heat escape lessening position (H.E.L.P.).

  • Cross ankles

  • Cross arms over chest. Hands should be kept high on the shoulders or neck.

  • Draw knees to chest

  • Lean back and try to relax.

If more than one person is in the water and wearing a life jacket, the "huddle" is recommended:

  • This is where small groups of two to four "hug" with chests closely touching.

  • Arms should be placed around the backs of the others and kept underwater, while smaller individuals or children can be placed in the middle of the "huddle."

  • The huddle helps to conserve body heat and it is also easier for rescuers to locate than one lone victim. The close proximity of victims can serve also as a significant morale booster.

How to be a safe boater:

  • Wear a life jacket: Minnesota law requires a wearable U.S. Coast Guard Approved life jacket for each person onboard a watercraft.

  • Prevent capsizing: Reduce speed in rough water, don't overload a boat, secure loads from shifting and adjust for changing conditions.

  • Prevent falls overboard: Remain seated while underway, avoid a sudden shift in weight.

  • File a float plan: Leave it with a responsible person. Include a description of your boat, names of passengers, boating location, time of return, and description of your car and where it is parked. Tell the person to call 911 if you don't return at the expected time.

  • Brief passengers: Everyone should know where all safety equipment is (and how to use it), and how to start, stop and steer a boat.

  • Be prepared: Always wear a life jacket every time you step on a boat. Trying to put your life jacket on in the water is extremely difficult (if not impossible) and costs precious time and energy.

  • Carry a whistle or horn: Minnesota law requires a whistle or horn on all motorboats 16 feet or longer.

  • Keep an eye on the sky: No boater should ever set out in a storm.