For many, springtime (mud-season) looms as the longest and most trying of seasons. Skating, skiing, ice fishing and other winter sports are no longer possible; hiking trips await drier footing, paddling is on hold until the ice goes out. Adirondackers, often in some desperation, look for diversions to help them survive this interminable time of year.
With the arrival of March, temperatures start to swing wildly from 5º to 65º. Water drips, brooks babble and lake ice slowly dwindles away; not sinking as some would believe, but rather becoming porous and water filled until finally it melts completely and disappears. This happens bit by bit in different parts of lakes and over a period of many days. Ever resourceful, residents take advantage of this phenomenon to provide entertainment in the form of ice-out contests.
Folks put $1 to $5 down for each guess made as to the exact date, hour and moment of this special event. Competitions are usually run as fundraisers, half the take going to the winner, half to the sponsoring organization. Sometimes contests provide more fun than funds. Taverns and bars also run these events, patrons hoping to outwit their drinking buddies and win the entire purse.
As lake ice goes out at different moments on different sections of a lake, methods must be devised to determine just what will constitute the “ice-out” moment.
Lower Saranac Lake resident Don Duso used to be the designated official contest judge for the lake. He owned the Crescent Bay Marina and thus, while working at his business, could easily keep at eye on the ice. When the ice went out on Crescent Bay, it was accepted as the official ice-out date for the whole lake.
On Long Lake, the ice-out date was determined by Herb Helms of Helms Aero Service who would fly to the North end of the lake and upon finding open water, declare that the official ice-out date.
In Cranberry Lake, ice-out date is determined by a barrel, earlier submerged beneath the ice, which pops to the surface.
On Blue Mountain Lake, ice-out used to be determined by the date a barrel, perched on the ice, fell into the water.
A couple of years ago in Saranac Lake, the date was determined when an Adirondack Chair with a clock attached fell through the ice, stopping the hands which marked the moment.
At Big Moose Lake, Bob Van Slyke laid a mast and flag on the ice, attached to a float with a sash-weighted 3′ chain. When the ice softened, the weight fell through and the flag popped upright.
At Raquette Lake, Proprietor Sandy Hicks of Raquette Lake Hotel and Tap Room determines the ice-out time based on the first appearance of open water from Bird’s Marina to Tioga Point and from the town to Golden Beach.
In Lake Placid it has often determined by “Ice Meisters” who are officially appointed to stand around watching the ice in order to determine its exact hour of departure.
To get a feel for how really serious this business can get, it is worth making note of the sophisticated device invented by Ed Donley of Schroon Lake. It marks the exact hour, minute and second of this highly anticipated event which serves as a fundraiser for the Lions Club. Donley’s ice-out device (pictured above) consists of a half-pallet with a hole in the center into which is set a half-cement block. This contraption is placed a 1,000′ from shore on Schroon Lake. When the ice goes out, the pallet, which has floatation bumpers on four sides, remains afloat. The block, which has a spool of wire attached, drops to the bottom in about 60′ of water and becomes the anchor.
An electronic water sensor attached to the block is activated and sends a signal to a wireless transmitter which transmits the signal to a receiver on shore. The device is waterproof, powered by batteries and a solar charger, and covered with a foam flotation cover. It displays reflectors, flags, and flashing lights for safety. The receiver sends the ice-out signal to Donley’s home where an alarm system alerts him to the exact second of this highly important event. A dialer is then activated to let other Lion Club members know that ice-out has occurred.
Ice-out competitions are not only a great diversion but important for the morale of Adirondackers who sometimes find it hard to “hang-on” through the spring until rescued by the warm winds of summer.
Caperton Tissot is the author of Adirondack Ice, a Cultural and Natural History, published by Snowy Owl Press.