Stepping down the bank of the frozen river carrying an armload of equipment, my feet went out from under me and I slid down the bank on my back and onto the ice. This happened on a day in March 1966 at the West Fork of the Big Blue River near Dorchester, Nebraska, on my first ever trip to learn stream gaging and sediment sampling.
I went to work full time for the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS) in June of 1965 as a chemist in a laboratory In Lincoln, Nebraska. At the time, the USGS Water Resources Division had three branches, Surface Water, Ground Water, and Water Quality. I was assigned to the Water Quality branch. USGS had a program to provide cross-training in the other branches. The experience I just mentioned was my first field trip to learn the work of the Surface Water branch. I was with an established hydrologist and trainer named Bruce. He emphasized that working in and around water can be dangerous.
When we arrived at the site that morning, it was about 35 degrees and the land surface was slightly slick from bright sunshine. I put on my new chest waders. Bruce who put on hip boots told me that I didn’t need chest waders, that even if I went through the ice, the stream was no more than two feet deep. I didn’t have hip boots. When I took my tumble, it might have been the funniest thing Bruce had ever seen. He laughed for a few minutes and told me how much fun he was going to have to tell the story when we got back to the office.
We worked at the site for two hours. First, we strung a tagline across the river. This was a wireline on a reel with beads every two feet, which we used to locate spots for chopping the ice to provide access to the water below. We chopped 20 holes in the ice with ice chisels though, which we inserted our ice meter to measure the velocity of the water flowing under the ice. One of us made the actual measurements while the other took notes. With velocity measurements together with water depth measurements, we were able to calculate the total flow of the river in cubic feet per second.
Then we used the same holes to collect water samples for measurement of suspended sediment load which would be done in the laboratory. All the time we were working on the ice, it creaked and cracked causing me some consternation. Bruce said not to worry, the noise was typical.
When we finished we carried the equipment and samples up to the bank and stowed them in our truck. I made it up the bank successfully. Then we noticed that we had left the tagline stretched across the river. Bruce went after it. He was reeling it in and as he got near the bank and ready to climb out, he went through the ice to just over the top of his hip boots. He was able to climb out with no problem but when he got to the truck, took off his hip boots, and poured out the water from them, I laughed as hard as he had when I watched him wring out his socks. I drove and he rode back to Lincoln in the warm truck in his boxers.
While driving us back, I said to him, “Uh Bruce.”
He cut me off, “I know what you’re going to say. I won’t say anything about you if you don’t say anything about me.” We stopped at his house to get some dry jeans before going back to the office. Neither of us said anything about the other’s misfortune.