Winter has finally arrived in Maine. Gone are the balmy days of November and December, when record-high temperatures reigned and life in the North Country was surprisingly easy. I am only halfway through my November wood supply, which means I’ll have more than enough seasoned oak, maple and beech to get through this winter and the start of next year’s burning. Back in September I spent a day splitting kindling in anticipation of another long, cold winter but have barely gotten into the pile. Barring a “winter in May” scenario I’ll have more than enough splinters to get me through next year as well.
With the snow and cold comes the desire to get outdoors and enjoy our traditional winter sports but I would caution everyone to use caution and always check carefully before venturing out on frozen lakes and ponds or on skiing or snowmobile trails.
I spent the last day of the non-winter wandering the woods and waters in my area and was amazed at how little ice there was, even on secluded small ponds. The last day of duck season in the Southern Zone, for example, was Dec. 22 and I could easily launch and paddle my kayak into local beaver flowages. One such channel meanders for about 4 miles through sheltered brush, woodlands and marshes and yet I did not encounter even a skim of ice.
Late in the day I walked the edge of one of the most popular ice-fishing ponds in the region and had to stay on shore the entire time. There was little or no ice even on the shady side of the pond and what ice had formed was paper thin. In fact, I could see leaves and twigs moving along in the current below the ice. That, I’m afraid, does not meet the criteria of “safe ice,” not by a long shot. With cold, wind and some luck we may see 3 inches of ice soon enough but fishermen and snowmobilers need to remember that ice does not form as one continuous, uniform sheet. There will be air pockets, thin spots and areas of unsafe ice all across the surface. The larger lakes are likely to have areas of open water, making any kind of travel over the ice a tricky proposition.
I’ve fallen through the ice a time or two and can say with authority that it is not as much fun as one might think. I had to learn the hard way that if you can poke a hole in the ice with a stick and water floods the surface it is definitely not safe! I considered this for a moment when I ended up standing on the bottom of a pickerel pond looking up at the jagged hole I’d just fallen through. Fortunately, I was close to shore and had the wherewithal to crash my way into the shallows and out of the water. I can still remember what a cold and miserable bike ride I endured on the way home. My clothes were frozen solid and my gloves froze to the bike handles. This was over 50 years ago but, by heck, some memories remain vivid even after half a century. Ever since then I’ve stepped gingerly on the ice and always make sure there is more than enough ice for safe travel.
One interesting discovery I made last week was while walking one of the local snowmobile trails, ostensibly in search of snowshoe hares but also just enjoying the unusually warm temperatures.
I came across several newly-built wooden bridges that seemed quite sturdy and solid but some of the structures I saw seemed rather dangerous. In some cases the bridge itself was a good 18 inches or more above the trail, and in other cases the cast-off lumber from the previous bridge had been used to build up the approach to the new structure. All of this seemed to create a rather large, solid “step” that a snowmobiler might not be able to traverse once the first snowfall or two covered the approach. I could just imagine someone hitting that first 2x6 going full speed! In some cases snowmobile parts from previous winters were scattered all around, suggesting that abrupt deceleration is a common threat on these trails.
I’m sure that once the snow gets deeper and more firmly packed the element of danger is reduced but the first (and last) riders of the season are in for some very interesting bridge crossings. Common sense suggests that one would use extreme caution when approaching bridge crossings. The bridges themselves seem to be well built but getting on and off them could be challenging.
Also, snowmobilers should keep in mind that some bridges have been replaced and the new one may not be where the old one had been. I found several such replacement bridges where useful parts of the old bridge had been used to construct the new one but rotten beams, boards and other pieces of the old bridge were left in place, creating a serious hazard for anyone who isn’t aware of the change or misses the signs directing them to the new structure. Bridges, by their very nature, provide crossings over streams, wet holes and other watery obstacles, which means if you miss the bridge you’re likely to end up in water up to your windshield – or worse. I only mention this because my neighbor found this out the hard way last winter. He went left (toward the old bridge) instead of right (toward the replacement bridge) and ended up astride his sled in water up to his shoulders. It took three other snowmobiles and quite a bit of manpower to free his sled and get it back on the trail (the next day).
Overall, winter travelers should exercise extreme caution until we get enough snow to cover the many bridges, rocks, logs and other obstacles that loom ahead on the trail. You don’t want to bring your snowmobile home in parts and pieces!