I was feeling all but psychic following last week’s column in which I cautioned that someone would probably end up going through the ice this month. As it turned out, seven people needed to be rescued in a 36-hour period, which may well be a record for through-the-ice events in Maine. Fortunately, as far as I know there were no fatalities, but there were plenty of close calls.
Actually, it’s statistics, not rocket science that helps in making such predictions. Every year for as long as I can remember there have been incidents of people falling through the ice, mostly early and late in the winter when ice conditions are at their worst. In most cases a vehicle of some sort is involved, be it a snowmobile, 4-wheeler or the family sedan. I have driven on the ice several times but find it to be an extremely creepy exercise – the cracking and moaning of the ice beneath the wheels only makes the experience more disconcerting. I haven’t crossed a lake or pond in a vehicle in 40 years or more, being perfectly content to walk or snowshoe across the ice. In my mind the odds for survival in case of a mishap are much higher.
It would be easy enough to say that the advent of motor vehicles has made the number of ice accidents rise but Maine folks have been falling through the ice pretty much since the first settlers arrived. There are plenty of stories about people on horseback going through the ice, and many an unfortunate logger has met his doom while driving a team of draft horses or oxen across a frozen pond.
I spend my summers working on Maine’s ancient cemeteries and there are several cases where entire families lost their lives while skimming along the surface of a frozen pond in the family sleigh. It was all “do or die” in those days because there were no game wardens, fire departments, rescue squads or even police departments one could call for help nor were there any methods for calling them.
While researching the history of winter travel in Maine I came across many references of how the Abenakis and other local tribes would conduct their raids on English settlements in the dead of winter, using the lakes, ponds, rivers and streams as travel ways. It must require some fortitude to run across a frozen waterway for days on end, and then waiting in the cold and snow till darkness fell and the murderous raid could begin.
Certainly there would have been some cases of the attackers falling through the ice on their way to or from an assault, but I could not find a record of it ever happening.
I suspect that those early inhabitants of colonial Maine were better at reading ice conditions and knew where and when to cross, enter or exit a frozen waterway than the average, modern snowmobiler or ATV rider. Suffice it to say that as long as we continue to have winters we are going to have ice-related accidents. I just continue to hope that our Rolling Thunder brotherhood is not included.
As I mentioned, I have been doing all of my winter traveling on foot or on snowshoes for most of the last 40 years. In fact, I still use my trusty wood-and-leather pickerel-style snowshoes that I bought in Vermont in 1971. I can imagine that the early settlers and Indians used similar footwear in winter.
Made of ash strips, shellacked leather lacings and a few brass tacks, my old snowshoes are still in perfect shape and continue to carry me through the deepest snow with ease. They are quiet, dependable, sturdy and effective, which is all anyone can ask of a winter conveyance. They even serve as a portable picnic table when I reach my destination and want to stop and have a tea break. One shoe becomes a table and the other serves as a comfortable seat while I fire up the gas stove and consider my options.
My personal rule while snowshoeing in winter is to avoid any areas that have open water. This means thin ice for sure, and is most common at inlets, outlets, near shore and in swamps where springs may keep the ice thickness down to a mere skim, even in the dead of winter. My fear is not necessary breaking through the ice because the places where I walk are quite shallow. Instead, what I dread is a long walk back home with a broken snowshoe. There is no fun in walking in thigh-deep snow with nothing on but hiking boots. You’ll definitely appreciate your snowshoes the first time you try walking in deep snow without them.
Because this winter started so quickly (we were snow-free on Dec. 15, and then buried alive a week later) and ice formation has been iffy at best, I limit my waterway travels to the shoreline areas where I know there is solid footing below. Our lakes, ponds and rivers are just as scenic when viewed from their borders. It is tempting to take shortcuts across coves and bays that certainly look safe, but the wiser choice is to stay inland at least till the authorities declare that the ice is safe.
Because my winter treks are focused on wildlife signs and sightings, I am content to do my snowshoeing in the woods along logging trails, snowmobile trails and other established paths. There really is little wildlife to see in the middle of a large, frozen lake, but animal and bird activity picks up almost immediately on shore. Trudge farther into nearby wetlands, swamps and fields and the number of critters in evidence will increase exponentially.
The bottom line in winter travel, whether on foot, snowmobile or ATV is safety. If you take a chance it means you know there is a chance that things will go wrong. We’ve been lucky this year that there have been no through-the-ice recreational deaths but there is plenty of winter to go. Don’t be the first name on the list!