April 20, 2018
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Mainers embrace and record ice-out as rite of spring

By Kathryn Olmstead, Special to the BDN

This is the time of year for telling stories like the one about the couple who bought an old camp on a lake in Aroostook County. Etched inside one of the cupboard doors was a long list of dates representing decades.

“What’s this?” they asked the seller.

“Oh, that’s the record of ice-out on the lake.”

It’s true. The passing of the ice is such a carefully watched, long-anticipated sign of spring, it is duly recorded, analyzed and celebrated by many observers around northern lakes and rivers.

Ice-out occurs when the frozen surface of a river or lake thaws and breaks apart enough for the water to flow freely.

Fort Kent holds an annual contest to see who can predict the exact minute of the day the ice goes out on the Fish River, selling 1,440 tickets (one for each minute of a day) for $2 each. The winner gets $200 and the remainder goes to the sponsoring organization (this year the American Legion).

In Howland, someone used to place a barrel on the ice of the Piscataquis River and bets were taken for the time and day of ice-out. “The teachers at the Ring Street School really enjoyed this,” Sherry Randall wrote in an email, responding to my request for ice-out stories in my last column.

A New York Times reporter had heard about the legends of ice-out before she visited my feature writing class at the University of Maine as a guest speaker. She wondered if students could give her some information for a story.

“Lake ice-out or river ice-out?” was the first response from the class. Stumped, the reporter admitted she had never considered the difference, and proceeded to let the students enlighten her on one of the natural wonders of the north.

Colleen Murphy of Caribou keeps a close eye on the ice in the Aroostook River and emailed me April 14 this year to say it was loosening up above the Caribou dam. Since I live just below the dam, she knew I would be interested.

“My dad would spend hours sitting on the access road below the dam, hoping to be there the moment the ice broke loose and headed over the dam,” she said. “In some years when the ice-out is especially dramatic, the whole roadway will be lined with vehicles with literally hundreds of people watching and socializing.

“The word of ice-out spreads quickly in a small town and loads of people head for the river’s edge to see what they can see. I so look forward to that milestone of spring because now we know warmer weather is upon us and fiddleheads won’t be far behind.”

Colleen’s brother Gary Cameron also emailed me to say he often joined their father “watching tons of ice break over the Caribou dam … and grind its way to Canada.” It was a time for father and son to just be together and discuss world problems, usually around his dad’s birthday, April 25.

Stanley Thomas spent 41 years greeting customers at Stan’s Grocery on Madawaska Lake and kept a day book recording the dates of ice-out from 1964 to 2005.

“The earliest it went out was April 20,” he said in a phone chat this week, recalling back-to-back years when ice-out occurred on that date. “The latest was May 30, but it was usually right around May 10. I think it’s happening earlier now.

“Once the ice breaks away from the shore it can sit there 10 days to two weeks,” he said.

“Some spring mornings there will be a little water around the edge of the lake and by noon it’s half gone.”  

Stan dispels the myth that lake ice moves to the middle and sinks.

“Ice floats,” he declared. “Put an ice cube in a glass and it floats.”

One exception might be the ice on Long Lake in years past. Paul Marin recalled in the 2010 Ste-Agathe Historical Society Newsletter that before environmental consciousness “ice-out meant that by late March an accumulation of waste and garbage, canned goods, rotten potatoes, bare snow-tread tires, abandoned machinery, and whatever else was no longer needed or wanted was hauled out on the lake’s ice and bid farewell.”

“Oh, how true it is,” wrote Philip Bechard in an email. “Paul Marin was my neighbor, living in St. Agatha in the early 1950s and 1960s… Ice out would carry the trash further towards deeper waters, “voila” no more trash.

“I thank God today that all this has stopped because Long Lake is one of the cleanest lakes in this area,” Bechard said.

Phyllis Hutchins of Presque Isle grew up on a farm beside the Aroostook River just across the Canadian border from Fort Fairfield. She said one family lost their outhouse to ice-out every year.

“At the time we kids thought that was very bad luck.” Yet the family rebuilt the outhouse in the same place every year. “Looking back, I think it was a set-up deal,” she said. “They guessed it was easier to rebuild than to shovel out.”

For Phyllis, “ice time” had two parts: family ice and ice-out. The first part was ice harvest when “men and older boys used long, man-powered saws to cut dozens of two-foot-thick, nearly kid-sized blocks of ice,” leaving an open channel in the river. The blocks were loaded onto stone drags, pulled up the river banks and delivered to each neighbor. “Covered with sawdust for insulation, the ice provided refrigeration and ice cream all summer.

“Ice out was the spectacular part of ice time,” she wrote. When “deepening, ever-pushing melt water lifted a mile or so of ice enough to break it away from the river banks … it sounded like dozens of big guns.” Later she watched “a churning, crashing, thundering field of ice chunks push up onto the river bank and tumble down the river.”

For those of us not raised with ice-out, witnessing it for the first time creates an indelible memory that resurfaces at this time of year. The day I received Colleen’s email, the Aroostook River filled with slabs of ice moving quietly toward Fort Fairfield. That night I propped open the storm window in my bedroom and let their whispering lull me to sleep.

Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at kathryn.olmstead@umit.maine.edu or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.

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