Safe ice changed quickly at Sebago

Posted Feb. 22, 2010, at 11:46 p.m.

By design, the Maine Chevrolet Ice Fishing Derby that is staged on Sebago Lake each winter is a fun fundraiser with all kind of activities for the entire family.

On Saturday, the derby turned into something else entirely, as ice conditions rapidly deteriorated on the state’s second-largest lake, and derby organizers scrambled to cancel the event and evacuate the lake.

“It was hairy there for awhile,” Maine Warden Maj. Gregory Sanborn said on Monday, after spending Saturday afternoon and evening at Sebago.

“What was safe ice, because of 45-degree [temperatures and] sun, became almost plastic and unstable,” Sanborn said. “We had people going through all over the lake.”

During the actual day that the derby was held, Sanborn said that participants, organizers and wardens were lucky: Participants left the ice in an orderly fashion, and nobody was seriously injured.

“We were extremely fortunate this weekend that the end result was that people had to throw their clothes in the drier,” Sanborn said. “All over the state, we had people through the ice. From Millinocket to Damariscotta to Sebago, and as of this morning, everybody’s accounted for and alive. We were very fortunate. We were lucky.”

On Monday afternoon, however, that assessment had changed.

Tom Noonan, the derby organizer, said that a salvage diver who was trying to retrieve an ATV that had been lost during the derby died during his salvage effort.

Sanborn said that “dozens” of vehicles fell through the ice on the balmy February Saturday. Noonan said a few ATVs and snowmobiles were lost, but all of the automobiles that fell through the ice did so in shallow water near shore.

In addition, Sanborn said that the warden service responded to seven incidents of individuals falling through the ice. That number, he said, is a likely a fraction of the incidents that actually took place. Other people, he said, were likely helped to safety by fishing partners or bystanders, and the incidents were never reported.

Sanborn, who patrolled Sebago Lake from 1992 until 1997, said he has seen a lot of large-scale events at the lake over the years.

“The first time I went down as a sergeant to work the derby, I hadn’t seen anything like it,” he said. “There were people everywhere. I couldn’t even venture a guess [as to how many were on the ice on Saturday]. Thousands.”

Noonan estimated that there were a couple thousand anglers and spectators on the ice when conditions began to change.

On Internet message boards and on the street, some have been critical of the decision to even start the derby after a warm week.

“It’s a public body of water, and we can make recommendations and suggestions,” Sanborn explained. “Obviously, if someone was going to venture out and we knew they were going to die, we could stop that.”

That wasn’t the case on Saturday, however, as many anglers headed out onto ice they considered safe early in the morning.

Later in the day, the situation changed.

“We were checking [ice thickness] prior to [the derby], and the conditions were significantly different in the afternoon,” Noonan said. “There were places where we lost five inches of ice in a few hours.”

When wardens met with Noonan and passed along their information, Noonan said he agreed at about 3 p.m. that it was time to pull the plug on the event.

The evacuation went well, thanks to modern technology, Noonan said.

“I think a lot of this was because of the cell phone,” Noonan said. “Once we decided to terminate, we started calling people that we knew were out on the ice and told them to tell everybody around them that the derby was cancelled, and that they needed to get off the ice.”

Sanborn said about a dozen wardens were at Sebago as part of a detail, and wardens in airboats traveled around the lake to tell anglers they needed to leave the ice.

Sanborn said he’d never seen such a situation during February, and compared the rapidly decaying ice to the conditions that take place right before ice out.

Noonan said he’d heard reports of odd conditions from a number of anglers that may help explain the rapid deterioration of the ice on Sebago.

“Some of the fishermen were talking about the fact that the ice melted from the bottom up, quickly, and were wondering if something was going on with thermal currents, and said that their lines were going out like there was a current, and not toward the typical flowage,” Noonan said. “That’s anecdotal, but I did hear that a lot.”

Whatever the reason for the unsafe conditions — above-normal temperatures, the wave action on the ice sheet in places where the lake hadn’t frozen solid, or odd currents — there are many who will simply say the anglers who took part in the derby were foolhardy … and lucky.

Among the derby’s participants, however, are plenty of cautious, experienced ice anglers who didn’t realize the risk they were taking until it was nearly too late.

Let that be a lesson to the rest of us.

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