FORT KENT, Maine — Those whose business it is to monitor ice conditions on Maine’s lakes, rivers and ponds are saying this week there is no safe ice in the state.
“It really is the case there is no safe ice in Maine,” Doug Rafferty, spokesman with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said Wednesday. “Quite a few lakes and rivers have open water [and] it is just not advisable to be out on it right now especially if you know the water is over your head.”
On Wednesday, a search for three missing snowmobilers suspected of going through thin ice on Rangeley Lake was suspended due to extreme cold and wind conditions.
On Monday, the body of Dawn Newell of Yarmouth was recovered after she went through the ice on Rangeley Lake while snowmobiling with her son.
“Those high winds are actually opening up more water,” Rafferty said. “Tonight it should calm down.”
With wind chill advisories active over much of Maine on Wednesday, the temperatures are sufficient to freeze Maine’s water bodies, but Rafferty stressed those extreme cold spells need to last at least two weeks with little or no wind before the ice can freeze to a safe thickness.
“People have really got to be careful until then,” he said.
On Monday, officials with the Allagash Wilderness Waterway issued a release reporting hazardous ice conditions on the Allagash headwater lakes, including Big Eagle, Telos, Churchill and Chamberlain, where ice depth measured 2-5 inches with slushy conditions.
“Three inches of ice isn’t very much, and that thickness may vary from location to location,” Matthew LaRoche, waterway superintendent, said. He urged those heading out on the ice to play it safe and check the ice in the area in which they are traveling before venturing out onto it.
The AWW superintendent warned all visitors to stay away from thoroughfares and avoid tributary streams.
In northern Maine the lakes are beginning to freeze over.
“The ice is OK, but I’d be very careful,” Tenley Bennett, registered Maine guide in Eagle Lake, said Wednesday. “Conditions are slushy in lots of areas on Eagle Lake and ice thicknesses vary considerably.”
Ice fishing opened around Maine on Jan. 1 and Bennett said she has seen snowmobiles and trucks driving on Eagle Lake to ice fishing shacks.
“I wouldn’t take a truck on [the lake] just yet,” she said. “With the snowfall this winter it is difficult to judge ice conditions [and] dangerous spots might be hidden just beneath the snow.”
At Long Lake in St. Agatha, longtime ice watcher and organizer of the annual fishing derby Paul Bernier said conditions are variable on that lake as well, ranging from up to a foot on the St. Agatha end to just three inches down near Sinclair.
“Anyone who wants to go out on the lake I would suggest walking out first and drilling test holes,” Bernier said. “I do them every 50 feet and you can tell then how thick the ice is and how much [weight] it can support.”
Rafferty also advises testing ice before traveling too far on frozen bodies.
“If you are going to head out there, you had better wear something that will keep you afloat like a life jacket,” he said.
Rafferty also recommended carrying specialized ice picks which an individual could use to pull themselves back onto the ice in an emergency.
The safest course of action, outdoor enthusiasts agree, is to avoid the ice altogether for now.
“Stay off the lakes,” Kathy Mazzuchelli, director of the Caribou Parks and Recreation Department, said Wednesday. “There is still open water and running water.”
While some spots may have adequate ice, Mazzuchelli said, the danger comes from the fact several feet to the right or left of those areas the ice can be much thinner.
“People need to be really careful,” she said. “Where the trails do run on lakes or water, wait until the locals go out and mark those trails [because] they know when it is safe to ride.”