The Midwestern United States may not leap to the forefront of most people’s minds when asked about places to scuba dive, and it might even come as a surprise to learn just how popular the sport is here, but one thing is sure; the Midwest is one of the best places in the world to learn diving. The diversity of conditions allows divers to experience everything from warm tropical-like waters to diving under several feet of ice all in the same body of water. A diver that learns and becomes comfortable here can compare his or her experience to that of diving nearly everywhere else in the world.
Because of my job as a scuba instructor I get surprisingly few dives that could be called “personal fun dives.” That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the diving I do; I love my job! But it does mean that my own choices for diving usually involve either a new site or a new activity. That’s how I found myself standing on three feet of ice covering Lake Okiboji in northern Iowa in the dead of winter, wondering about my ability to think rationally.
I had first met Dave and Patt Swanson at a PADI update in Kansas City, and it was during one of the session breaks that I asked about the type of diving they did at their shop. As a summer resort town on the beautiful lake, they of course offered the usual instructional programs and guided lake tours. However, it was the mention of the annual ice diving events that truly piqued my curiosity, and led me back to them for more information. Unseasonably warm weather conditions delayed my plans by nearly a year, but the following winter I was joined by a fellow instructor and a divemaster from my shop for what I believed to be a “once in a lifetime” experience.
The weather on the nine-hour drive to Arnolds Park, Iowa, seemed to reflect our emotions. During the brief moments that the sun broke through it was easy to smile and laugh, but for the majority of the drive it was cloudy and at times snowing heavily. Those were the times we would look at each other morosely and ask why we would drive so far in such bitter cold to submerge ourselves into ice water in Iowa. The reply was because it was something new to experience, something we had never done before…
We checked in to our hotel in Spirit Lake, and then drove to a nearby restaurant where we were joined by the Swansons. After introducing my companions, we enjoyed a wonderful meal in a restaurant dominated by a large fireplace along one wall. Conversation flowed easily around jobs and families, and of course diving as we relaxed over dessert and coffee. Then it was time to finalize our plans for the next two days.
Dave’s plan was for us leave our equipment in the dive shop overnight, where it could remain both safe and warm. We would meet there at 9am the following morning where he would review the procedures to conduct a safe ice dive, and where would also be able to suit up in a warm, comfortable environment. We would get at least two dives on Saturday and then finish up the certification dives Sunday morning before we began the long drive home. Our moods had shifted to eagerness as we had listened to Dave, but the temperature display on the bank sign showing -25*F on our way back to the hotel reminded us just how serious things could be.
The overcast sky was promised to turn sunny by late afternoon, but the temperature was also promised to remain at arctic levels for the entire weekend, and we gratefully filed into the warmth of the dive shop the next morning for our brief. Dave Swanson greeted us with his ever-present smile, and introduced us to Matt, one of his young instructors, along with a couple of divers from South Dakota who would be joining us for the dives. We sat in the classroom and watched Dave’s self-produced video about ice diving at our location, then began a review of the terms and procedures we would be using for the next two days.
My divemaster companion, Jesse, was celebrating his birthday that day, and Patt had graciously baked a cake in his honor to go along with the large pot of stew she had simmering in the shop. The warm delicious smells hinted at the lunch we would be having in a few hours, but our minds were currently on prepping for the dive. The plan was for us to suit up inside the shop, load the scuba units onto a trailer attached to a four-wheeler, and walk out across the ice a little over a hundred yards to the ice house.
Dave had already cut through the three feet of ice during the previous day, and had covered the hole with plywood inside the ice house. Propane heaters inside the house helped with heat, but we still had a thin skim of ice on the surface that needed to be broken with a punch bar. The rest of us had duties beyond diving, including being suited up as safety divers, and managing the surface line connected to the divers in the water. Safety was paramount in this type of diving, and everyone had to be prepared for any eventuality.
On my first dive I would be joining another diver, with Dave attached between us. My job as diver tethered nearest the exit on the rope was to act as “communicator,” signaling the surface with a tug when we wanted more slack to the rope, two tugs to signal “OK,” and in the event of a problem the dreaded “three or more” to haul us out. My fellow diver was at the furthest point on the rope and would act as “navigator,” basically leading the dive in whatever direction he wished to go. Typically there would be only two divers on the line, but this being a training dive Dave settled into the rocking chair in the middle.
Jesse and my fellow instructor, Danny, slid into their harnesses and readied themselves as safety divers, while Matt and another diver took charge of the surface end of the safety rope. The three of us on the first dive descended down the ladder connected to the ice house wall, careful not to allow our regulator second stages to become wet and thus freezing open. Once all of us were connected with the carabiners we signaled okay, and then descended below the surface before putting the second stage into our mouths. Even the slight moisture of our breath could potentially freeze in the regulator and cause a free-flow malfunction.
Diving while being connected to a rope isn’t as easy (or as difficult) as one might assume, but it did take constant attention to avoid tangling with other divers or the rope. My dry suit insulated me from the ice water, but recognizing that the first three feet was cut through solid ice and that water below the ice was barely 35*F, the shock of that water against the bare skin of my mouth and cheeks felt like needles until the numbness took hold. I took slow inhalations fearing a freeze-up of the regulator which would cause us to abort the dive, but after a few breaths began to relax.
I had opted for argon as suit inflation gas because of its density and added warmth, and arrested my descent by adding a short burst into the dry suit. Buoyancy control would be critical in avoiding the silt bottom 30’ below us as well as not bouncing off the ice ceiling above, and I had barely gotten control before I felt the solid two tugs from the surface. I responded with two tugs in return to verify we were okay, and then flashed an okay to my companions.
The plan was to swim directly east to the extent of our 130’ limit, hopefully finding an old ice truck that had fallen through the ice nearly a half century before. The water was surprisingly clear, and while we all had lights I found myself not needing it. I had expected diving under the ice to be dark, but with no snow on top of the ice ceiling it was unexpectedly bright. I was able to look up and back, and could clearly see the shadow of the ice house on top, and the bright orange of the rope was very apparent as it led back to the surface.
We finned out carefully, avoiding entanglement with the rope and each other, and I could easily feel my surface support keeping excess slack out of the line. At one point the rope seemed to hold us back, and I signaled for more line, instantly feeling the release from above. We reached the end of our limit, and I saw Dave point slightly to our left at a shadow that could only be our target the ice truck. We angled toward it, and carefully over swam the old flatbed before continuing on in our arc.
Our comfort level had grown to a nearly relaxed state and it came as a bit of a surprise when Dave signaled the turnaround. I glanced at my dive computer, amazed that our time had gone so quickly. Since it was a direct route back to the exit I was now “leading” the return, and was more able to look around and be a little less concerned with tangling and communicating. The underside of the ice was incredible, rippled and glass-like, yet clears as crystal. I again marveled at how clear the water was, and at how easily I could see the surface support people even from a depth of 20’.
We ascended slowly, pausing just below the surface to remove our regulators from our mouths and holding them above our heads as we broke the surface. The eager looks on my friends’ faces was matched by my own smile, and we talked excitedly as the other diver and I exchanged positions of the rope to “learn” the opposing position of an ice dive. The second dive also was an incredible experience, and I found myself swimming much more slowly and deliberately during the “navigation” portion of the dive. Again, I was surprised at how quickly our dive time passed, and sadly exited when the dive ended.
We all took our turns at the different stations, learning procedures and skills, and laughed like children as our frozen suits crunched during our walk back across the ice to the dive shop. Hot stew, hotter coffee, and delicious chocolate cake greeted us upon our return, and we eagerly looked forward to the next day’s final certification dives as we unsuited. We all agreed that it was an experience we were glad that we had shared, but that it wasn’t necessarily an event we would want to repeat multi-times a year. In fact, I had no idea even that I would find myself back the following year with six more divers eager to share our experience!
Midwest diving may not have all the colorful fish and corals found in other places around the world, but what it gives in some areas it more than makes up for in the ability to provide diverse and challenging training in other areas. Learn here, and you’ll be better prepared to dive anywhere. Even on the underside of ice!