FORT KENT, Maine — Hinckley has its buzzards and Capistrano its swallows, and while predictable, ice-outs on the Allagash and St. John rivers are every bit as reliable a sign of spring.
And darn near as popular.
“Yesterday there must have been 100 different cars — I’ve never seen the likes of here in town,” Cheryl Turner, who works at Two Rivers Lunch in Allagash, said Thursday morning. “They were all here looking at the river.”
What they were looking at, Turner said, was the river ice that had broken up from the Allagash and St. John flowing freely with the current.
All week the ice on rivers and streams around Maine has been breaking up as temperatures finally began to rise. And as those temperatures rose, so too did river levels, with runoff and ice jams creating flooding conditions and closing roads from Augusta to Allagash.
It’s an awesome display of nature and apparently one heck of a roadside attraction.
Late Wednesday afternoon everyone who was anyone was cruising the stretch of Route 161 between Allagash and Fort Kent, pulling off anywhere ice could be spotted jamming up in the St. John River.
“It’s the social event of the season,” one longtime St. Francis resident said. “Mud season.”
The resident — who did not want to be named — was among a dozen or so spectators parked in cars and trucks at a muddy barnyard in St. John Plantation.
The St. John River was frozen at that location, but those gathered were betting that the moving carpet of ice heading that way from St. Francis would soon pass by.
“We got no opera house up here and no more barrooms,” the resident said. “The only thing we have is watching the ice.”
Several cars over, Mary Beth and Clayton Jackson were watching the river with their three granddaughters.
“Clayton came to pick me up and told me the ice was running,” Mary Beth Jackson said. “This is something we have watched all our lives.”
Apparently one phone call is all it takes to mobilize the ice-watching crew.
“We all chase the ice up here,” Karen Gagnon said. “The phone rings and we all run.”
As the minutes dragged on, more pickup trucks and cars full of residents arrived.
“Look, look there,” one resident said. “The water, she’s opening up.”
Sure enough, a dark spot was slowly spreading on what minutes before had been the frozen river. Moments later, a channel appeared and soon after, ice chunks began slamming into it, creating a bit of a jam.
“Look, it’s a whale,” someone said as a massive chunk of ice hit and flew up from the water, very much like a breaching whale. “It’s a St. John River whale.”
With little other ice action, talk soon turned to ice outs of years gone by.
“I remember one year when the ice went out and the flooding was so bad school was out for the whole week,” Gagnon said. “The road washed out above and below my house — we were stuck.”
That was in 1974 and Gagnon remembers the National Guard delivering food and a helicopter picking up a pregnant resident who had gone into labor.
Gary Hartt remembers that year and said he’s been a river watcher all 73 years of his life.
“It’s nice to see the ice run as long as it doesn’t spoil much,” he said.
Looking out at the frozen section of the St. John River, Hartt added, “It’s going to take a lot to push this clear.”
As people swapped flood stories, someone’s phone rang, followed by another, and soon there were shouts being exchanged from vehicle to vehicle.
“Water’s coming over the road at Kelly Crossing,” Gagnon said.
Minutes later, the lot was empty and everyone had reassembled at the low spot along Route 161 at the St. Francis town line, where the river was creeping closer and closer to the roadway.
By 5 p.m. Wednesday the ice had stopped moving and was jammed up starting at the St. Francis-St. John Plantation town line, and by Thursday it extended back a good five miles.
Late Thursday morning, the jam was creating flooding conditions that closed down Route 161 at Kelly Crossing — the only road in and out of St. Francis and Allagash.
“We’re pretty used to this,” Turner said. “I had some people come in from Fort Kent today and they told me they were here to look at the river. I told them, ‘See that school bus? When it heads out of town, they are closing the road down.’ They told me they’d be back for lunch another time and drove off right quick.”
Residents had been told that if anyone needed supplies or assistance they should call the Fort Kent Police Station and help would be on the way.
In the meantime, Turner said she is glued to her computer set to the Maine Department of Transportation “bridge cam” at http://www.maine.gov/mdot/maps/radarlocales/index.php, which offers continually updated photos of the St. John River at the international bridge in Fort Kent.
She and other locals also are dreaming of spring.
“As soon as the ice runs people start getting their canoes out,” she said. “I’ve seen two people already this week with the canoe racks on their trucks. No canoes yet, but next week you are going to see them.”
Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer who writes part time for Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.