I live across the road from the northern end of a lake that’s about five miles long, maybe a mile wide at its widest, over a hundred feet deep in spots.
The lake is a year-round playground: swimming, fishing, jet-skiing, a bit of water-skiing in the summer; snowmobiling and ice fishing in the winter.
Ice fisherfolk tell me they’ve measured as much as two feet of thickness deep in the season, far more than enough to hold the pickup trucks people use to drag their fishing shacks out onto the ice.
Still, the ice on these little lakes in Maine is famously unreliable, especially early and late in the season. The ice can be deceptive: very thick, yet uneven and hummocky beneath the snow cover that hides the irregularities. Massive cracks that shift and create pockets of danger take snowmobilers in particular by surprise, sometimes fatally.
I don’t go out on the ice much, I just watch it, and what I really want to talk about is the way it disappears in the spring.
The first year I lived here, not knowing that the local people called the phenomenon “ice out” – as in, “Is the ice out of the lake yet?” – I named it “ice off.” That year, 1988, the first day when I could see no more ice from my property was April 12.
There are local characters who get in their cars and circle the lake every spring, keeping an eye on it, sometimes getting into the Augusta paper with their pronouncements about when the ice is “out of the lake.” But I have my own personal definition, and that is: ice off is official when I can see no more ice from my house.
From 1988 through 2009, “ice off” was always within the month of April. April 12, 24, 20, 10, 28, 12, 24, 18, 1, 25, 23…..no particular pattern, but never May, and never March.
Then, dismayingly, in 2010 the ice was gone on March 23. In 2011 it was back to April 20, in 2012 it was March 25. Since then: April 13, 24, 24; March 29; April 21.
For 2018 – it remains to be seen. It will not be an especially late date this year, but it will (I can now say with confidence) not be in March. The thin black line that marks where the moving water of the brook comes in and makes the first crack appeared a few days ago. The gorgeous fringe of sparkling blue water that marks the next step hasn’t made its appearance yet.
Every year around this time we start playing the prediction game. Another week? two? And every year we have to acknowledge that we have no bloody idea. The wind, the amount of snow cover, the number of sunny vs. cloudy days, the air temperature, the kind of winter we had – until we get to within a few days, the variables keep us guessing.
Then, when the time gets close, we run into the problem of the fuzziness of the definition. Okay, it’s when I can see no more ice from my house. Except … the big plate, maybe 50-100 feet across, that’s been floating here in the north bay for a day or two has now been blown south and out of sight by the wind. And then – blown back into sight. So did that first disappearance count, or not?
Or – no plate, but what about that little fringe of white in the shade under the far bank, where some ice remains because the sun never hits that spot?
Regardless. The first day the ice is gone, especially if the water is sparkling in sunshine, is the year’s best festival. There’s no formula, like for Easter (first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox), or Passover, or Chinese New Year. You just have to wait for it, and be ready.
And boy are we ready.