It happened during the final race of the day.
Two vehicles fell through the ice during Saturday’s third and final Kahnawake Ice Racing Series (KIRS) event. The occupants fled their vehicles, climbing out onto the hoods of the cars, which in less than 30 seconds were fully submerged.
Although all occupants emerged unscathed, the incident raised questions about the safety of the sport, which is beloved by many in Kahnawake even as some say it is becoming more dangerous given the changing climate and warmer winters; temperatures climbed to three degrees Celsius on Saturday.
Derek White, a veteran racer who helped first-time commissioner Bryar Lawrence organize the series, said the ice was checked the night before the race, as well as the morning of.
“It was a freak accident,” said White.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Alexandre De Roy, one of the racers on March 11. He’s been racing for the last 10 years.
“It was unsettling at first, but no way, it won’t stop me from going racing,” said De Roy.
The event took place on a stretch of the river accessible by War Eagle Road.
All of those directly affected by the incident were non-locals. Among them were Vincent Noel, Patrick Renaud, and Isabelle Tremblay and her daughter, Maycha Tremblay.
“I would like to not make any comments on the events other than to thank everyone that helped us get to safety and to get the cars out the next morning,” said Noel.
Renaud and Tremblay declined to comment at all.
Saturday’s winning racers agreed to donate the prize money to fund repairs to the waterlogged cars. De Roy, who was on one of the winning teams, said that they made the decision to help the affected racers “get back on their feet faster, so they can come back racing with us.”
The next morning 30-40 community members armed with shovels, trucks, and chains gathered to retrieve the vehicles from the bottom of the St. Lawrence River.
“Ice racing is like one big family,” said White.
People travel from near and far to Kahnawake for ice races. Some even come from out of province. For many, ice racing is an integral part of winter in Kahnawake.
“There’s a lot of older guys that kind of hung up their helmets – a lot of their sons or their family members took over as they grew older. There’s a lot of community involvement in racing,” said White. This is true for racer and former commissioner Bryant Montour-Leblanc, who got his start in racing through his father.
“Obviously, it was an unfortunate accident. We’re happy to hear that all occupants made it out safely,” said MCK chief Ryan Montour, who oversees the public safety portfolio.
“But there are inherent risks with any sport, especially one that’s on a frozen body of water. I would say safety and due diligence must be adhered to at all times,” he added.
A spokesperson for the Kahnawake Marina said that although they have previously been affiliated with the Kahnawake Marina Super Series, they had no connection with this year’s Kahnawake Ice Racing Series.
Both the Kahnawake Fire Brigade (KFB) and the Kahnawake Peacekeepers confirmed that the incident was not reported to the police or the fire department.
“Thankfully, there were no injuries or worse that were a result of this incident,” said Peacekeepers spokesperson Kyle Zachary. “However, in the interest of public safety, we are advising community members to stay off of the ice for the remainder of the season.”
Montour-Leblanc explained the usual protocol for checking the thickness of the ice: at each of the track’s four corners, an auger is used to drill a hole just outside the perimeter, with two additional holes drilled inside the track, alongside its straightaways. A tape measure is then used to determine the thickness of the ice.
“The corners were 14 inches in three corners, and in one corner it was 16 inches. By our standards, it was safe to go,” said White.
According to White, ice must be at least 10 inches in thickness for the races to proceed.
“Where those two cars had fallen in, if you go two feet beside it, the ice is 16 inches thick,” he said.
White actually ventured back out onto the ice on Wednesday and measured its thickness at 12 inches, he said, but he also acknowledged the inherent danger of the sport.
“There were three cars, and these cars weigh over 5,000 pounds each, so in an area of 20 feet, you got over 15,000 pounds sitting in one spot. Something’s bound to give,” said White.
It takes a certain kind of courage to climb into a 5,000-pound machine and drive it as fast as you can atop a frozen river, weaving past other vehicles of the same stature, but for some, the risk is part of their love of the sport.
“Everybody knows the second you go on the ice that you’re automatically at risk,” said Montour-Leblanc, “because, you know, I don’t really think you’re supposed to drive vehicles on the ice in the first place.”
During registration for the race, participants sign waivers to acknowledge that the organizers are not responsible for any death, injury, or damage that vehicles might incur.
“It’s a sketchy prospect, especially this winter, considering how warm it’s been,” said KFB fire chief David Scott.
Climate change, with its mild winters and volatile weather, has changed the sport and may have exacerbated the risks that racers take on participating in it.
“The weather is definitely not the same as it used to be…. It’s becoming more and more mild, so I think that might have had something to do with the formation of the ice,” said Montour-Leblanc.
According to Montour-Leblanc, the weather noticeably changed the day of the incident.
“At around 11 or 12 o’clock, the sun came out, and then it started to get more mild,” he said. He estimates the incident took place around 2 p.m..
White said the ice has changed in the 20 years he’s been racing on it. He remembers when the ice would take on a deep, dark blue shade, much different than the opaque surface racers have become familiar with in recent years.
“White ice means it wasn’t cold enough. It froze, and then it melted, and froze, and melted over and over…. It’s probably due to global warming,” said White.
Montour-Leblanc used to hear stories of the ice-racing season starting in mid-December and lasting through mid-March. Now, it seems these stories come from a bygone era. The first ice races in Kahnawake this winter took place in early February.
“Every year, I notice it’s getting worse and worse. It takes a lot longer to actually get on the ice, and it doesn’t last as long,” said Montour-Leblanc.
“I think ice racing may disappear as global warming takes effect,” said fire chief Scott.
White feels differently.
When asked what the incident could mean for the future of ice racing in Kahnawake, White said, “It doesn’t mean anything. We’re going to race again next year.”
Lawrence did not respond to requests for comment.