KENT WARD

The icing on January’s annual thaw

Posted Jan. 06, 2012, at 4:01 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 06, 2012, at 4:45 p.m.

When the new year rang in earlier this week, bringing to Maine a spate of unseasonably warm weather and rain showers, it upset ice fishermen and pond hockey players, but went down OK with homeowners, pedestrians and retired snowbirds late in heading for their winter quarters in Florida.

Two days later, as single-digit temperatures arrived overnight with biting northwesterly winds that stuck around for days, it pleased the ice people, but bummed out most everyone who had need to negotiate their driveway, a sidewalk or a business establishment parking lot.

Like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, whose exploits we learned about in junior high school, we found to our chagrin that “the ice was here, the ice was there, the ice was all around.” And may still be here, by my calculations, until June comes into view.

Wardens cautioned ice fishermen not to travel on most of Maine’s lakes and ponds because few, if any, larger bodies of water had developed a cap thick enough to support them. Ice needs to measure at least 4 inches thick before anyone should walk on it, they warned, and at least 5 inches thick to support a snowmobile or ATV. Under those guidelines, most ice-locked driveways in my neck of the woods easily pass muster. Granted, the fishing there may not be all that great. On the other hand, there should be no need to verify the thickness of the ice with an auger, so there you are.

After the Big Chill had set in, I slip-slid my way over the dooryard, attempting to chip a pathway to the garage — unsuccessfully, as it turned out. As I labored, it occurred to me that, as nasty as this coating of ice may be for however long it sticks around, it pales in comparison with conditions that followed the infamous ice storm that ravaged a great swath of Maine in the first week of January 1998.

That was the January thaw to end all January thaws, still vivid in the memories of those who experienced it. A healthy coating of snow covered the ground when rains that heralded a warm spell coated everything in heavy, damaging ice as temperatures dropped below freezing overnight. Trees snapped and utility poles and lines came down, causing widespread and lengthy power and telephone outages, slowing life and daily commerce to a crawl.

Living in Winterport at the time, I was one of the fortunate few whose power was off for only four days of relatively mild weather. Many others were without power for much longer, and the stories of neighbor rallying to help neighbor in dealing with life-threatening situations would become the stuff of legend.

“Outside, all about me trees are snapping under the weight of four days’ worth of ice, their tops and assorted offshoots thudding to the ground in a dramatic cascade of ice crystals and miscellaneous debris,” I wrote in a column published that weekend. The wooded area between my house and the Penobscot River resembled a scene from the Argonne Forest of World War I after a savage artillery barrage had devastated the area. Spring cleanup that year offered interesting challenges.

If the perfect ice storm of ’98 taught us anything, it was an appreciation for that old saw about never missing the water ‘til the well runs dry. After days of functioning without electricity, few are those who ever again will take the utility’s service for granted. Had Central Maine Power Co. chosen to double my electricity bill at the sweet moment when my power clicked back on and the furnace fired up, the outfit would have heard no peep of protest from me.

The storm provided us with a list of items in addition to a heated home and stately trees to henceforth not take for granted. Anything hot, including food and a shower. Extra blankets. Friendly neighbors. A working telephone, battery-powered transistor radio and radio stations dedicated to passing on storm-related information.

Friends who burn wood for heat. Sunshine. And, of course, the people — the utility line workers, police, firefighters, rescue crews, volunteers and others — who always rally on such occasions to stave off disaster and clean up the mess afterward.

Without them, the communal goose would likely have been cooked to a fare-thee-well 14 years ago this week. Provided there had been an old-fashioned wood-fired backup cook stove available to the chef.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is maineolddawg@gmail.com.

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