A Tale of Two Ice Fields on the Kennebec River

A Tale of Two Ice Fields on the Kennebec River
Kennebec  River

A snowy, late-January 2011 view of the Kennebec River frozen over along the banks of Gardiner, Maine (Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.)

Winter 2011 has held the Maine coast in a frigid, tight grip, and in the process, buried any hopes for an early thaw under a heavy blanket of snow that grows deeper by the week.

Along rivers, lakes and ponds, the frosty evidence of winter is found in the form of a thick cap of ice that has imprisoned all scenes of sparkling blue water, while exiling the flow of river currents to unseen depths below the crystallized barrier.

The Kennebec River, a winding waterway that runs 150 miles from its origin at Moosehead Lake in west central Maine to the river’s mouth at Popham Beach where it empties into the Gulf of Maine, surrenders long lengths of its beauty to the clutches of Jack Frost each winter.

Of course, there are a number of people who take great pleasure in seeing ice spread far and wide over rivers like the Kennebec, for on these occasions, recreational activities like smelt fishing and snowmobiling descend upon the frozen rime in a passionate clamor.

Smelt fishing shacks

A view of smelt fishing shacks on the Kennebec River at Randolph, Maine (Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.)

A recent visit to the Kennebec along the riverbanks of Randolph and Gardiner, towns just south of the Capital in Augusta, revealed unbroken ice fields, which have temporarily bridged the natural watery divide that separates the two communities.

The icy view, no matter how typical or familiar at this time of year, never fails to spawn a good dose of intrigue.

Though there is little to break up the canvas of whites and grays along the frozen mass, one peculiar sight counters the icy desolation with an unbridled spirit of sport, fun and camaraderie; all of which echoes from inside rows of small shacks that line the riverbanks like tiny villages.

From around December right into March each year, fishermen drop their lines in the Kennebec for sea run rainbow smelt that are often found in coastal rivers along Maine and New Hampshire.

A Valley Angler article entitled “Smelt Fishing” by Bill Thompson nicely captures the scene that surrounds this traditional activity. According to Thompson, “The shacks or shanties are placed along the banks of the river in neat rows sort of resembling town houses. Each house will accommodate from two to six fishermen.”

Smelt fishing shacks

A close-up view of smelt fishing shacks on the Kennebec River (Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.)

Thompson goes on to note, “The shacks are heated by small stoves. On one side of the shack is an open troth, through which lines are dropped. The term shack or shanty aptly describes them as most are roughly constructed.”

With winter being as entrenched as it is this year, the sport of smelt fishing will most likely go undisturbed along the Kennebec River, but that was not the case last year.

During the last week of January 2010, a mid-winter warm spell caused a great deal of anxiety for many Kennebec riverbank communities as a one-two punch of heavy rain and moderate temps inflicted sudden upheaval upon the river ice cover.

The rain and thaw broke the ice apart and sent large chunks rushing down river, which threatened everything in its way; but not all of the dislodged ice found freedom to wreak havoc as it floated along the waterway.

Kennebec River

January 2010 view of the ice jam on the Kennebec River just south of Augusta, Maine (Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.)

A sharp bend in the river just north of the Randolph-Gardiner Bridge trapped tremendous flows of ice, causing volumes of it to pancake on top of each other in a chaotic and jagged pile reaching as high as fifteen feet at some points.

Once the ice came to a grinding halt, it formed a mile-long ice jam of daunting proportions, which then sent flood waters over the riverbanks along places like Gardiner, Hallowell and Augusta.

According to the National Weather Service, the ice jam caused the Kennebec River to rise to around 17 feet. The river’s flood stage is 12 feet.

To make matters worse, the United States Coast Guard, which sends domestic icebreakers up the Kennebec River on an annual basis to break ice for flood control purposes, was unable to reach the actual jam with their assets due its location just above navigable waters.

Kennebec River ice jam

Ice piled up in chaotic and jagged fashion along the riverbanks of towns like Hallowell, Gardiner and Randolph (Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.)

Fortunately, the thaw was short-lived, causing the jam to refreeze in place. The return of colder temperatures helped the riverbank communities avert a potential disaster like that which occurred in April 1987 when six feet of melting snow and up to six inches of rain in the mountains caused major flooding along the Kennebec as waters rose 21 feet above flood stage.

Though winter 2011 has been an active season filled with its share of snow, ice and frigid temperatures, for those riverbank communities along the Kennebec, I am sure they would like to see winter’s icy handiwork take its time departing in a slow melt rather than a sudden exodus that no one wants to experience firsthand.

Kennebec River

A view of the Randolph-Gardiner Bridge. The January 2010 ice jam was located just north of the bridge (Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.)

Kennebec River

The January 2010 ice jam caused the Kennebec River to rise five feet above flood stage along communities like Hallowell (Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.)

Kennebec River

Ice pancaked to heights of 15 feet along certain points of the January 2010 ice jam on the Kennebec River (Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.)