Wednesday afternoon, a festive day in the BDN newsroom took a different turn before all the dishes from our holiday potluck dinner had been cleared.
Reports were coming in from Aroostook County that indicated a Maine Warden Service plane had broken through the ice on Eagle Lake. No official word was forthcoming, and editors scrambled to learn what they could from staffers working in northern Maine.
Later in the evening, a more complete story emerged in a press release: The pilot, Jeff Spencer, broke through the ice while taxiing his plane toward the warden service’s plane base. He was returning from a flight spent locating black bears with radio telemetry gear, and because of strong winds, was forced to slightly alter his landing pattern on the lake.
According to the release, two days earlier several test holes were drilled in the ice near the plane base to make sure conditions were safe. In addition, several takeoffs and landings were made after those tests.
Still, the incident took place. And luckily, Spencer escaped from the plane without injury.
Before any details were made public on Wednesday, social media outlets were buzzing with opinions from those bold enough — or rude enough — to spew their opinions even though, at that point, there were no confirmed reports that the pilot wasn’t still inside the plane that was shown in photos.
Among the online comments were some that went something like this: “The wardens are always warning us to stay off the ice. Why don’t they listen to their own advice?”
Fair question, I suppose, though the release seems to address that issue: The ice had been tested, and had been safe. Heck, the pilot had taken off and landed several times since the tests were conducted.
Then something changed: The wind. A plan was altered. And it led to a near-disaster.
As we sit here a day later and play armchair quarterback, it might behoove all of us to ask ourselves a simple question: What should this episode mean to me and the people I ice fish or snowmobile with?
Not that many of the online finger-pointers who are yucking it up at the pilot’s misfortune will consider that question, of course.
But think about it. Who spends more time in our woods and waters than our state’s game wardens? Who spends more time on our frozen lakes and ponds?
Not Joe Ice Fisher, I’d bet (though many of the comments I read appeared to come from that particular portion of the Maine outdoor sporting public).
Does that mean that wardens are perfect, and that they don’t make mistakes? Absolutely not.
But does it mean that after hauling dead people ashore after preventable tragedy after preventable tragedy on our semi-frozen waters, game wardens might have a pretty well-developed sense of what kinds of hazards exist out there, as well as plans to avoid those hazards when possible? I think it does.
And still, Jeff Spencer nearly became a horrible statistic, because something changed.
Think of how slight a change may be in order to make a perfect day on a lake turn into a disaster. Perhaps that change is obvious: The wind switches, or a gale blows in, or rain and snow decrease visibility.
Or maybe something changes and we don’t even know it: The ice that was eight inches thick under our feet the last time we checked has thinned because of an unseen underwater current, and we’re now snowmobiling along on just an inch of solid surface.
So what’s the point? What’s to be learned here?
A few things.
Chief among them, I think is that for us everyday recreationists who aren’t required to be out on the ice (like a warden pilot might be) to realize there’s no need to rush the season. The ice will freeze, eventually. Or it won’t. Either way, the fish will wait.
In addition, local knowledge is key. If a game warden can lose a plane through the ice on a familiar lake, that ought to illustrate that you’re taking your life in your hands if you trust your safety to the weekend warriors who assure you that there’s “plenty of ice” because someone else drove their sled or vehicle onto the lake a mile or so away.
Go to the general store around the corner. Talk to the locals. Ask them if there are places you should avoid.
Then, check the ice yourself. Noticing the presence of a truck on a frozen lake does not count as “checking.” The guy with the truck might be numb as a hake, and temporarily be living a charmed life. He might be the next statistic, and if you sit tight, you might be the witness … or the rescuer.
Drill holes early. And often. Don’t assume safe ice in one spot remains safe across the pond.
Be safe. Live to have a great Christmas, and a fantastic new year.
John Holyoke can be reached at email@example.com or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke
Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.