This winter started off with a bang. As we spent our Christmas holidays with family in Baltimore, we watched the weather reports from home, seeing ice, high winds, and lots of snow forecast for Christmas day. Our electrician had just completed installation of a generator that would turn on the minute the power went out, whether we were home or not.
For our first time going away in the winter, we would not have to arrange for someone to light a fire in the wood stove to make sure the pipes didn’t freeze if the power went out.
On leaving Baltimore on Dec. 28, we again had our eye on the weather at home. There were high winds and single-digit temperatures predicted. Should we chance that there would be a 3:30 p.m. boat on Friday, or play it safe and drive from Baltimore to Ellsworth in one day so we could stay in a hotel, get groceries, and catch the 11 a.m. mailboat the next day? Even though all boats were able to run the next day, we were glad to have bitten the bullet and made the 12-hour drive so we could catch the mid-day boat and spend the afternoon getting the house warmed up.
This is the time of year when weather is most apt to make boat cancelations necessary. It’s also the time of year most summer visitors ask about. When they think about a cold winter here they ask if the water ever freezes over between the island and Mount Desert Island. It has not happened in my lifetime, but I’ve heard stories of it happening once before I was born. The large difference between the tides and the steady action of the waves is usually enough to keep the salt water from freezing solid.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have plenty of issues with ice. We are only four weeks into winter but we have already seen more than enough single digit and below temperatures. Even with a few rain storms and warm ups, everything has turned back into ice.
Ice, or preventing it, is a factor for most boat trips off and on the island. At the island docks, the floats are taken out late in the fall and we use the steps along the side of the dock to get on and off the boats. When temperatures are well below freezing, this means the steps exposed to sea water and air become icy in no time. We’re all careful getting on or off the boat and will gladly accept a steadying hand regardless of our age.
In Northeast Harbor where the floats stay in all year, the ramps can still be icy. Like the steps, an icy ramp at low tide requires careful attention. Even when the ice and snow have not yet arrived, the harbormaster salts the ramps to be ready for upcoming challenging conditions. This safety feature is appreciated but can require careful navigation as the rock salt on a steep ramp acts like ball bearings under foot.
Our harbors are nowhere near as protected as Northeast Harbor. In cold weather and certain wind directions, the ice builds up fast, requiring workers to break it apart with wooden mallets to keep the float from sinking under the weight. It is also not unusual to see captains and crew in Northeast Harbor breaking ice off the bow, cabin, and window of a boat they have just maneuvered through choppy seas to the islands and back.
Our fearless snowplow operators, Blair and Cory, keep our island streets in good shape, plowed and sanded and available for use. Only recently did we have a few days when a sander was broken and people were wise to use grippers on their boots when walking.
Winter on an island can be fickle, dangerous, and beautiful. I think most of us are able to stay here and stay sane by learning to cooperate with the inevitable. If you make a doctor or dentist appointment, be prepared to reschedule in case the boat doesn’t run that day. Many people have places to stay with friends and family if they are still off-island when an afternoon boat is canceled. Some people keep an overnight bag in the car, “just in case.”
Winter is not all about hardship, though. Just the other day there were at least a dozen people shoveling wet snow off the pond at the gravel pit on Islesford. The forecast was for more single digit temperatures after the weekend thaw and rainstorm. I haven’t been there yet, but I bet the skating right now is superb.
As dangerous as it can be, I really love this time of year. I allow myself to read for a few hours after breakfast rather than getting right into some kind of work.
To me, the angle of sunlight in the weeks just before and just after the winter solstice is the most beautiful of the whole year. All year I look forward to this slow down, to yielding control of my plans to the weather. By March I will be tired of having a plan B and C in the back of my mind, but for the next few weeks I’m going to enjoy it.
Barbara Fernald lives, writes, and makes jewelry on Islesford (Little Cranberry Island).