Updated: Apr 25, 2022
"The great gray ice mass moved quietly, and behind it was the sudden softness of open water, tickled by the wind."
By John N. Cole
The ice went out of the bay last week; and I was there one after- noon to watch some of it leave with the falling tide. Afterward I decided there can be few other natural events, if any, which are such dramatic witness to spring’s arrival. Any Maine person who lives within sight of any water—stream, river, pond, bay or lake—has something of a seasonal edge on the land-bound; for without the ice-out to prove it, winter’s end can too easily be prolonged.
I watched the ice move in last November. In the early mornings when we woke and looked out, I could see a slick on the still surface of the sheltered waters of the cove. I thought at first it was merely a place unruffled by the morning’s light winds; then, as the sun warmed the night’s frost, the slick patches would drift out into the bay like oil. I learned then that the rounded slicks were circles of early ice, too thin to survive the sun and the tides, but working each night for more of a hold.
One morning, the cove ice held fast against the tide and was still there in the late afternoon. By December, the cove was immobile, and the outer edges of the ice probed the open bay. Late in that short, dark month, the wind howled for two days and nights from the northwest, bringing with it an arctic cold. When the wind let go and the night sky cleared, the ice leapt across the entire bay and locked in the surging waters. What had been wind-tossed blue water the day before was now lifeless, little more than a flat extension of the land, without trees.
Everywhere the eye could see, the bay was white. Even with binoculars, the far horizon of the open ocean was nothing more than a blue line between sky and ice. The gulls and sea birds that had defied winter with their life at our water’s edge had gone, all of them, leaving the house with nothing but the chickadees and jays—land birds. The ice completed the silence of winter; it muffled every sea sound and subdued all movement.
As the snows gathered, the frozen bay became a white desert where the wind cut dunes from the drifts and blew the snow like sand across the hard dry ice. Then, in January, came a short thaw. The snow swept away and the ice surface was cleaned. It froze clear again, and we could skate for miles across the glistening skin. Still, skating is a winter sport; there was no sense out there that underneath the bay moved with the moon.
The ice stayed so long that we almost forgot the bay had been there. Winter had become too real. Putting on the big coat every morning became habit, and the acceptance of the cold beyond the door became routine. We began to think of life as always being congealed, indoors, snow dusted and sharp.
But in February’s last days, all that changed. The thin blue line on the horizon grew wide. The circling gulls that watched over the ice edge could be seen without the glasses. And in the first week of March, overnight, a ribbon of water ran through the ice from our shore across the cove. At first it was more a string than a ribbon—a thin line of gray against the white ice. It widened to a ribbon after one warm morning, became a sliver of open water just too wide to jump, although no one could tell how it had grown, so slowly did the widening take place.
That afternoon last week, as I was watching, the water ribbon became a breaking place.
The acres of ice on the bay side of the gap began to move away, to slip down the bay with the first nudges of the falling tide. One field of ice—and it could have held a farmhouse, a barn and a potato lot—moved enough to be seen. I could line up an edge with a tree on the point and then watch that edge slip out of sight behind the trunk. The great gray ice mass moved quietly, and behind it was the sudden softness of open water, tickled by the wind, capped here and there with smaller floes and ice cakes, each one drifting away on a final solo voyage to the distant sea.
Even as the ice moved, the birds returned. When the ice-out tide had finished falling and the flats came out for their first day since November, the gulls and ducks swirled over them in a silence with a surge of sound that could be heard a mile away. It was as if spring had arrived in a few afternoon hours, and that sort of seasonal turning is not like Maine, who holds her winters tightly, letting go ever so slowly, from March to May.
At least that’s what I had learned to live with until that afternoon last week. Now, after watching the ice leave the bay, and knowing that it is gone for good, I can take whatever March has left to give. That’s what I mean when I say that Maine people who live by water have an edge.
John N. Cole was a legendary Maine journalist who authored several books, including In Maine. This essay is an excerpt from In Maine. He was also a frequent contributor to national magazines and newspapers such as The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly.