Breath of Winter

Breath of Winter
Maze of winter

The maze of winter has not been very challenging this season (Photo by Ann-Marie Trapani)

With the month of March upon us, it doesn’t take much coaxing to start dreaming of yellows and greens, with thoughts of blossoms and warmer air filling in the gaps of our minds left drab by a winter season neither all that white nor memorable.

Try as it might, winter has simply not been able to gain its customary grip on the Maine coast this year. Scant snowfall totals and thin skims of ice are pretty much all we have to show from a season normally noted for its frosty personality in these parts.

It seems like each time a blast of Arctic air dares move in over our coastal terra firma, its bitter attributes are forced into a full retreat by warmer drafts well before they can subdue land and sea with volleys of crystal and rime.

But just because the calendar says spring is on the way, Mainers know all too well that winter won’t be shown the door without tossing its bag of tricks into the wind a time or two more.

Of course, wouldn’t you know that just as meek and mild February is giving way to March, things would suddenly turn interesting? With forecasters warning of a snowstorm for much of northern New England, any thoughts of the enduring mud season going green will be forced into momentary hibernation.

As for the idea of snow making an appearance, well, quite frankly, I had just about given up on the possibility due to the mild winter and its infamous rain/snow lines. I remain conflicted at this late stage as to whether I even desire snow, despite my affection for all things winter.

Sea smoke up close

A close-up view of Arctic sea smoke moving across icy waters as the sun gives it color (Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.)

Looking back, it has been more than a month since the last act of winter offered up a delightful memory along Midcoast Maine.

As I recall the details, it was during late January when my family and I took note of weather reports that cited a frosty foray was about to dip down from Canada, bearing a promise to send temperatures plummeting into the single digits.

With such bitter cold opportunities in short supply at the time, we decided to get out and about before sunrise in hopes of enjoying the elusive sight of Arctic sea smoke.

The conditions were favorable for the alluring vapor to appear, but experience reveals that even when it seems the air is cold enough and sufficient humidity is present, sea smoke does not always show itself.

Still, such an iffy proposition did not deter us.

This particular Sunday morning in January was indeed as frigid as forecasted but apparently the brew of icy ingredients in the air was lacking a dash of something, for there were no traces of sea smoke to be found in Rockland Harbor not far from our home.

Ducktrap River

Sea smoke rises into the air before sunrise around Ducktrap River not far from Lincolnville Beach (Photo by Bob Trapani Jr.)

Driving northward on Route One, the same could be said for the snug harbors of Rockport and Camden. At this point the thought crossed our minds that winter’s touch – cold as it was, just might not be able to coax the Arctic vapor into taking to the liquid dance floor of the sea.

As we departed Camden, I remember peering eastward where it was obvious from the energized glow on the horizon that the sun was just minutes from rising out of the sea.  All the while the morning sky was becoming awash in a stunning dress of pink, which enticed me to pull over along the desolate sands at Lincolnville Beach to admire the pastel firmament.

That’s when we noticed there was something more in the distance to the north – sea smoke! The stealth vapor was keeping a low profile as it hovered over the thin waters of nearby Ducktrap River and seemed to possess no desire to venture further out into the bay.

The fact that nearly all of Penobscot Bay, including the sheltered waters around Gilkey’s Harbor on Islesboro (an island located three miles to the east of Lincolnville Beach,) was vapor-free mattered little to us. For any sighting of sea smoke, regardless of how far and wide it writhers, is always fascinating to witness.

Belfast Harbor

Hoarfrost imprisoned all the trees and vegetation along water's edge in Belfast Harbor (Photo by Ann-Marie Trapani)

This experience, as neat as it was, would pale in comparison to what awaited us another thirty minutes up the road in Belfast Harbor.

Not far out of the City of Belfast we could see evidence of thicker sea smoke lurking in the distance over Belfast Bay, so we veered off Route One and drove down into town for a closer look. What we discovered – to our surprise, was a harbor draped in an amazing crystal world. Along the waterfront, all of the trees and vegetation were imprisoned by thick coatings of hoarfrost, making for a stunning scene.

Lured by the sparkling views, I parked our vehicle and decided to explore the immediate surroundings. Just after stepping outside of our vehicle, I was caught off guard by the intensity of the cold air. Without warning the temperature had dropped from around seven degrees out on Route One to minus two degrees along water’s edge at Belfast Harbor. The abrupt nine degree swing did not factor in the wind chill, which was even less hospitable to any exposed skin.

Shaking off the bitter encounter with the cold air, I was astonished at the state of frozenness around me. But all was not still. I could also sense a mysterious dynamic at work in the air at the same time, and despite the presence of a rising sun in the eastern sky, unseen drafts were causing the waterfront to grow eerily darker by the moment.

Before long a gray murkiness crept in upon the shoulders of a sly breeze and cloaked the harbor in a mist powerful enough to douse all semblance of light the sun could hurl forth. In recollection, what amazed me most wasn’t the manifestation of sea smoke, but how rapid and extensive it developed.

Belfast Bay

A wall of vapor rises over Belfast Bay in late January (Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.)

In rolling fashion, the sea smoke enveloped the harbor within a few minutes, piling vapor high above the water and as thick as pea soup. With visibility banished to reaches beyond Belfast Bay, there was little to see, which prompted my family and me to leave this low lying nook of Penobscot Bay and head for the elevated ground north of Belfast.

Breaking free from the visual chains of the sea smoke as we crossed the Passagassawakeag River (pas-uh-gas-uh-WAH-keg) by bridge, it became evident from our perch high above the harbor that the breath of winter we had just encountered was also tumbling about unrestrained in Belfast Bay.

The wall of vapor was so extensive along this indentation, and in a state of constant plunging, that it presented the appearance of an icy brew being stirred inside a boiling caldron. Its restless and writhing motion further exuded a sense of burning by the rays of the sun, which danced in concert with the condensation to create magnificent color and drama. 

Breath of winter

Who knows what the breath of winter still has in store for the Maine coast (Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.)

This memorable winter moment continues to stand out in my mind not just for its beauty and motion, but also because it has few other occasions to compete with its memory.

Will the snowstorm on February 29 / March 1 offer the Maine coast its own winter theatrics and grandeur? Time will tell, but for now, it appears prudent to be wary of the notion that winter may have no teeth left – for what the season has lacked in bite it may still have in breath!

By the way, did you know that locals in the Belfast area refer to the Passagassawakeag River as the “Passy,” or humorously, the “Passy gassy rum keg?” :)


Hoarfrost weighs heavy on a tree in Belfast Harbor (Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.)

Searsport Harbor

Arctic sea smoke dances across the frozen waters of Searsport Harbor (Photo by Ann-Marie Trapani)

Sun rises above sea smoke

The morning sun finally breaks from the wall of vapor on an otherwise frigid cold morning in late January 2012 (Photo by Ann-Marie Trapani)