FORT KENT, Maine — Let Capistrano keep its swallows and Hinckley, Ohio, is welcome to its buzzards. Any Mainer knows the real harbinger of spring is ice-out.
Largely regarded as the time when a body of water may be navigated from one end to the other unimpeded by ice, the seasonal event has spawned countless contests, raffles, impromptu parties, webcams and even its own Facebook fans’ page for the lakes and rivers around the state.
This year, many of Maine’s lakes are already clear of ice days and even weeks ahead of schedule.
“This year is extremely unusual,” Tim Thurston, owner of Maine Lake Charts of Gardiner, said Thursday. “I would not be surprised if every lake in Maine has a record or near record for ice-out.”
Thurston’s Web site at www.mainelakecharts.com contains a link to historical ice-out data going back to the mid-1800s.
Thurston has been tracking spring thaws since 2003.
“I’ve always had an interest in it, and we have contacts all over the state that provide information on the ice-out,” he said. “It’s a sign of spring for everybody, especially the fishermen.”
Thurston noted this year many of the lakes could be free of ice before April 1.
“Typically people just want to know when that ice is going to be out,” Thurston said. “They work during the week and will travel many miles on the weekend to find that open water.”
This year, fishermen and open water enthusiasts may not have far to travel or long to wait.
According to Thurston’s data, ice is already out on more than 30 Maine lakes, including Sebago Lake, Sabattus Pond, Unity Pond, Damariscotta Lake, Pemaquid Pond, Eddington Pond, China Lake, Sebasticook Lake, Lake Auburn and Great Moose Lake.
The ice just went out on Branch, Pushaw and Green lakes, according to observations from local residents.
Many more are on the verge of ice-out, including Wassookeag, Sebec and Moosehead lakes.
“It looks like it’s going to be an early ice-out on Moosehead,” Roger Currier of Currier’s Flying Service in Greenville Junction said. “There’s not an awful lot of good ice left out there.”
Currier has been monitoring the ice status on Moosehead since his days as a contract pilot with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife starting in the 1980s.
“The earliest Moosehead ever went out was around mid-April,” Currier said. “I think we are going to come close or break that record this year considering the amount of ice that’s left and the quality of that ice.”
According to the ice-out historical data on Thurston’s Web page, the earliest ice-out on record for Moosehead was April 20, 1910.
Currier agrees the whole phenomenon of the annual ice-out captures Mainers’ imaginations, and this year he started a Facebook page inviting people to predict when the ice would be out on Moosehead this year.
“My daughter talked me into it,” he said. “It’s kind of gotten blown out of proportion.”
The page has garnered the attention of several radio and television outlets in the state and to date has 272 fans.
Barry Dana, former chief of the Penobscot Nation, might not be a Facebook fan of ice-out, but he’s a real fan of the annual thaw.
“When I was growing up on Indian Island, we didn’t have cell phones or the Internet, but everyone knew when the ice was running in the Penobscot River,” Dana said. “The school would shut down and everyone would run out to watch the ice run.”
In the days before the current bridge connecting Indian Island to Old Town, he said the annual breakup of the river ice meant the loss of the temporary sawdust bridge.
“You didn’t want to be standing anywhere on that when the ice started moving,” he said.
Historically and culturally, Dana said, the Penobscots are a river-based people, so the status of the river shaped their daily routines.
“It’s how we traveled,” he said. “We either paddled it or walked on it depending on the time of the year.”
The ice on the Penobscot River went out approximately March 17 this year, according to the Maine Office of the U.S. Geological Survey.
For those who keep track of when lakes and rivers are free of winter’s ice, early thaws are a disturbing trend.
“Obviously, this is a very unusual year,” Scott Williams, executive director of the Maine Volunteer Lake Monitoring Program, said. “The only thing that could possibly cause the ice to melt this early is the weather, [and] the implications for lakes is that they could be warmer for swimmers this summer, but there could be potentially serious implications for earlier ice-out dates.”
Among those, according to Williams, are warmer waters creating a more biologically productive environment for algae growth and the proliferation of invasive plants, and an adverse impact on available oxygen for freshwater fish.
“This has been the warmest winter on record,” Mark Turner, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Caribou, said. “The average temperatures are six-to-eight degrees above normal, and when you combine that with a lack of snow to insulate the ice when the sun starts getting higher in the spring, that ice can really take a beating.”
Turner said most of the rivers and lakes in Northern Maine remain icebound, but there is some movement on some rivers.
“The Aroostook River from the Caribou Dam to Fort Fairfield is clear,” he said. “Some of the smaller rivers, streams and brooks are running wide open, and that’s affecting the bigger rivers.”
The Little Black, for example, is open and has channeled into the St. John River at Dickey near Allagash, Turner said.
The Fish River also is running into the St. John River in Fort Kent.
“It’s really early this year,” Turner said. “It’s usually a good bet between April 15 and 25 is when we get peak runoff and ice moving, so we are a couple of weeks early.”
When that ice does start to move on Maine’s rivers and lakes, Thurston predicts it’s going to happen quickly.
“The ice out there now is not quality ice,” he said. “It’s very porous and it’s going to go very fast.”
Thurston said the warm winter coupled with heavy rains in February have taken a toll on the ice.
“It’s made a lot of the ice rise up early,” he said. “That’s the first sign it’s going out.”
However, he was quick to point out that could all change.
“It’s going to be cold tomorrow and tomorrow night so the whole thing could turn around on us,” Thurston said.
Turner said the weather model for the next several days backs that up.
“You’re going to think it’s February on Friday morning because some of the coldest air mass of the year is on its way [Thursday] night,” he said. “There have been years in the past when the end of March or early April is very snowy, so we are not out of the woods yet.”
Kennebec Journal staff writer Mechele Cooper contributed to this report.