PORTAGE, Maine — A northern Maine trail groomer operator probably had a different idea about how to celebrate his birthday Tuesday, but was transported to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor after his machine fell through the ice on Portage Lake early in the morning.
Volunteer groomer Ken Fones, 63, was on his way home from a night of grooming and was crossing the inlet at the northern end of the lake when the 2003 John Deere groomer went through the ice and into about 16 feet of water, according to Jennifer Curran, president of the Portage Lakers Snowmobile Club.
“He had just groomed the Eagle Lake trail and ITS 85 and was coming back,” Curran said Tuesday afternoon. “He was crossing the inlet and went down.”
The accident occurred around 1 a.m. Tuesday morning, Fone’s birthday, she said.
Curran said Fones was able to exit the groomer’s cab and clamber up the machine’s tracks and back onto solid ice.
From there, she said, he walked about a quarter of a mile to the home of Eldon and Beth Jandreau, who called for an ambulance and did their best to warm him up.
“He was very lucky,” Curran said. “He was in the water around five minutes.”
Fones was taken by ambulance to The Aroostook Medical Center in Presque Isle and then transferred to EMMC.
“He is doing OK,” Curran said. “They took him to Bangor as a precaution and are keeping him overnight.”
A spokesperson at EMMC said Tuesday afternoon that Fones was in stable condition.
A recovery crew was on the scene most of the day, according to Curran, removing the 2003 John Deere trail groomer from about 16 feet of water at the north end of the lake.
By 4:30 p.m. it was out of the water and on dry land, she said.
Six test holes in the ice around the inlet over the weekend showed a minimum ice thickness of 22 inches, more than enough to support the 12-ton groomer, Curran said.
But conditions can change quickly at the inlet, she added, and Fones hit a “soft spot.”
Workers on Tuesday created a wooden bridge on the ice — which still measured 30 inches in some spots — over which a large excavator was driven to retrieve the groomer.
“When I got to the scene this morning [the groomer] was still running and we could see the lights under the water,” Curran said. “It was kind of creepy.”
Officials with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection were on the scene and very helpful, Curran said.
With the loss of the groomer, which was insured, Curran said grooming operations are done for the year in Portage and the trail over the lake closed for now.
“That section is closed, but [Fone’s] had groomed the entire section up north to Eagle Lake and that is deemed to be safe,” she said. “But riders really should check with local businesses to make sure those conditions are safe when they go out.”