I couldn’t believe it. I returned from a late afternoon walk March 20 and rapidly flowing water was carving a dark channel through the ice on the Aroostook River in front of my house. Could it be? I can’t remember an ice-out before April since I moved here in 1992. So of course I raced down to the Caribou dam and sure enough, not a chunk of ice rested on top of it. Water was flowing freely.
From the rushing sounds I could hear through my open bedroom window during the night, I expected the ice to be gone when I awoke March 21, but it was still resisting the open water upstream between the dam and my house. It was hard to pull myself away from the window as big slabs pushed against and up over each other all morning. By 1 p.m., the ice was gone. A pair of mallards floated not far from shore.
This must be a record, I thought. So I called the National Weather Service. Unable to communicate with the electronic voice that answered, I hopped into the car and paid NWS a visit.
What greeted me was the excitement of a record-breaking week.
“We have already broken the record high for today set in 1946,” said Richard Okulski, NWS meteorologist in charge, explaining the 74 F recorded in Caribou at 2 p.m. topped the earlier record of 57 F. “And that’s not final.” (It topped out at 75).
“Yesterday we beat the record by 23 degrees,” he added. The record high of 50 degrees for Caribou set in 1970 was easily topped by the high of 73 degrees on March 20, 2012.
“That might be a record in itself,” said Noelle Runyon, warning coordination meteorologist, of the difference between the old and new records. Not only that; prior to this year, the earliest date in March that the temperature in Caribou rose above 70 degrees was March 30, 1962. So, this year’s 73 F on March 20 had set two records in Caribou — the highest for that date and the earliest 70-plus day in March.
But I wanted to know about ice-out. Was March 21 also a new record for ice-out on the Aroostook River at Caribou? Well, the Weather Service doesn’t keep records on the river, but assured me I could find out from the Aroostook County Emergency Management Agency in Caribou or from Tony Levesque in Fort Fairfield, who in addition to his role as community development director serves as the flood watch contact person for agencies in both Canada and the U.S.
“This is the earliest ice-out in the 39 years I have had flood watch responsibilities,” Levesque said when I reached him March 23, adding that between 1940 and today, the earliest ice-out was on March 30. He said this year an ice jam flooded several roads and required the town to close the bridge over the Aroostook River for a few hours on March 22, but flood control measures taken by the town minimized damage. “We had some inconvenience, but no loss.”
Levesque referred me to the people who operate the Caribou and Tinker dams on the Aroostook River. I was able to reach Allen Rogers at Tinker Dam in New Brunswick, where the Aroostook River spills into the St. John.
Ice-out at Tinker dam occurred on March 22 this year.
“I’m looking at a list here,” said Rogers, who has been watching the river for 35 years. “The earliest ice-out was March 19.”
“What year was that?” I asked.
“Really. How far back does that list go?”
“1919. It goes from 1919 to 1995.” Rogers explained that formal record-keeping ceased as ownership of the dams changed from Maine Public Service to Wisconsin Public Service and finally to Ontario-based Algonquin Power & Utilities Corp.
“The ice usually goes out between April 10 and 15, right about dinner time,” Rogers said. “I don’t know why that is, but 80 percent of the time it will go out after the sun goes down, between supper and 8 p.m. Maybe the moon starts pulling on it.”
I left a message with my request for records on the Aroostook River at Caribou with the Emergency Management Agency and decided to call Roy Gardner in Allagash while waiting for a response. Roy has monitored the St. John River for agencies in Canada and the U.S. for more than 30 years and gave me ice-out records back to the 1960s last year. The earliest ice-out in that list was March 30, 1981.
“Everything was out here on March 21,” he said of this year’s early action on the St. John River. He said an ice jam from Allagash moved through on March 22 and that the ice spilled over Grand Falls on the morning of March 23. Gardner had no records on the Aroostook River but assured me I would get everything I was looking for from the EMA folks in Caribou.
But it turns out, he was wrong. “We don’t keep those records in this office,” said the receptionist, “but let me give you the number of the National Weather Service.”
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 email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.