SARATOGA COUNTY -- Ed Fitzgerald of Mayfield has been snowmobiling on Great Sacandaga Lake for a decade, but he'd never ridden all the way to the northern end by the Conklingville Dam until Jan. 31.
He didn't realize the ice would thin out so much near the dam, which is the impoundment for the 29-mile-long lake. His snowmobile broke through the ice at about 10:45 a.m. that Friday, about 40 or 50 feet from shore. He thought he was going to drown.
"I was thinking I had to fight it," Fitzgerald recalled on Tuesday.
Fitzgerald, a 44-year-old engineer and married father of two teenage daughters, was rescued by four Saratoga County Department of Public Works employees, and he came to the monthly meeting of the county Board of Supervisors in Ballston Spa to thank them.
"I didn't respect the dam enough. There was moving water," he said.
The supervisors on Tuesday honored the four highway workers who rescued the snowmobiler. "When we say that we live in a caring community -- this is a perfect example," said county board Chairman Preston Allen Sr., R-Day. "This is neighbor helping neighbor and we owe a debt of gratitude to these four men who don't want to be called heroes, but they are in our eyes."
The rescuers were Jeff Gray, Rob Crist, Preston Allen Jr. and Aaron Colvin, all equipment operators at the county's north garage, just a short distance north of the dam. With a rowboat they found nearby, a 2-by-4 wooden board to break ice and use as a paddle, and a length of rope, they were able to reach Fitzgerald and pull him to shore. He was in the water for about 30 to 45 minutes.
Fitzgerald was taken to Glens Falls Hospital by ambulance for treatment of exposure, but is now fine.
"I just really have to thank these guys," he said.
Gray, who lives on Kathan Road next to the lake, was home sick that day, but saw the snowmobile heading north toward the dam and realized something was wrong when it didn't come back down the lake. He then went down to the shore to take a look.
"He was up closer to the dam," Gray recalled. "He couldn't get up on the ice because he was exhausted and he was all togged out for snowmobiling."
The other three men came from the north garage. Crist, a volunteer firefighter in Corinth and member of its dive team, got a pager message that the dive team was needed at the lake.
"I knew right where it was and you don't want to have to need the dive team, and we made it so the dive team wasn't needed," Crist said.
Crist broke thin ice and rowed with the 2-by-4, Allen lifted Fitgerald into the boat, and the others used the rope to pull the rowboat to shore. Fitzgerald's energy was nearly depleted, as the rescue took about 15 minutes.
"When we got there he was yelling for help, but by the time we got to him, he was just moaning from being in the cold water," Gray recounted.
Anecdotally, it's been a winter when ice has been thin on many upstate lakes due to warm temperatures. A January ice fishing tournament on Great Sacandaga Lake had to be canceled because of safety concerns.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation said it doesn't have statistics on snowmobilers through the ice this winter, but there have been a few incidents. It offered advice on ice safety.
"DEC reminds New Yorkers to be safe when heading out on the ice," the agency said. "The presence of snowmobile tracks or footprints on the ice should not be taken as evidence of safe ice conditions. Individuals are strongly encouraged to check ice conditions and avoid situations that appear to present even a remote risk. For more information about being safe on the ice, go to DEC's Ice Fishing website."
"Do more research before you go someplace," Fitzgerald said.