top of page
  • Writer's picturePiper


Updated: Apr 25, 2022

By Kathryn Olmstead

When a New York Times reporter visited one of my feature writing classes at the University of Maine as a guest speaker, she wondered if my students could give her some information for a story. She wanted to know about a Maine phenomenon called ice-out.

“Lake ice-out or river ice-out?” was the first response from the class. Perplexed, the reporter confessed she had never considered the difference, and proceeded to let the students enlighten her on one of the natural wonders of the north.

The passing of the ice is such a carefully watched, long-anticipated sign of spring, it is duly recorded and celebrated by many observers of lakes and rivers in Northern Maine.

“I so look forward to that milestone of spring because now we know warmer weather is upon us and fiddleheads won’t be far behind,” said Colleen Murphy of Caribou. Colleen keeps a close eye on the Aroostook River and likes to predict what day the big sheets of ice will flow over the Caribou dam and fill the river between Caribou and Fort Fairfield.

“Word of ice-out spreads fast in a small town and loads of people head for the river’s edge to see what they can see,” she said of the annual spring ritual. “In some years, when the ice-out is especially dramatic, the roadway will be lined with vehicles with literally hun- dreds of people watching and socializing.” Colleen’s brother, Gary Cameron, recalled waiting for ice-out with his father, and “watching tons of ice break over the Caribou dam . . . and grind its way to Canada.” It was a time for father and son to just be together and discuss world problems.

At Madawaska Lake, near Stockholm, Stanley Thomas spent forty-one years greeting customers at Stan’s Grocery, where he kept a day book recording the dates of ice-out from 1964 to 2005.

“The earliest it went out was April 20,” he said. “The latest was May 30, but it was usually right around May 10. I think it’s happen- ing earlier now.

“Once the ice breaks away from the shore it can sit there ten days to two weeks,” Stan said of the shrinking slab of floating ice. “Some spring mornings there will be a little water around the edge of the lake and by noon it’s half gone.”

A story is told of a couple who bought an old camp on a lake in Aroostook County. Etched inside a cupboard door was a long list of dates representing decades.

“What’s this?” they asked the seller.

“Oh, that’s the record of ice-out on the lake each spring.”

Fort Kent, on Maine’s northern border, holds a contest to see who can predict the exact minute the ice goes out on the Fish River. A string stretches from a flag on a pallet in the middle of the frozen river to an electrical plug on a utility pole on the riverbank that sends power to an old clock in the Fort Kent Block House with numbers that flip to tell the time. When the ice breaks up, the flag moves, the plug releases, and the clock stops, displaying the winning time. Participants buy chances to predict the correct time and the winner shares the proceeds with a local service group, a different group each year. With as many as 1,440 tickets, one for every minute, the contest has raised more than $2,500.

The late Phyllis Hutchins grew up in Fort Fairfield in the 1930s on a farm beside the Aroostook River, just across the border from Canada. She remembered awakening in the night to what “sounded like dozens of big guns.” The river had risen and “the deepening, ever- pushing melt water lifted a mile or so of ice enough to break it away from the river banks.” The next morning, she watched “a churning, crashing, thundering field of ice chunks push up onto the river bank and tumble down the river.”

Phyllis recalled a neighbor family that lost their outhouse to ice-out every year. “At the time, we kids thought that was very bad luck. Now, looking back, I think that was a set-up deal. They rebuilt it back in the same place every year. They guessed it was easier to rebuild than to shovel out.”

This story is featured in Karthryn Olmstead's True North, a collection of essays from her years writing for Echoes magazine and the Bangor Daily News that shares her introductions to rural life in Aroostook County in an attempt to reveal the universal in the particular—the night sky and ice-out, the people and their cultural roots, and the intimacy with nature in every season.