If fruit is nature’s candy, the breakup of an ice jam is nature’s performance art. Half flood, half avalanche, they move with both a wild fury and a deceptive grace as they storm down Adirondack valleys, just looking for trouble.
In the Ausable River Valley, the phenomenon is a matter of pop culture, having given a name to an Upper Jay lodge and restaurant known as the Ice Jam Inn, and inspiring residents to jockey for the best vantage points along Rt. 9N as a one-mile procession of frozen blocks thunder by — the local version of the Running of the Bulls.
When an ice jam breaks, as happened recently, blow-by-blow reports of its progress post to social media, half as a warning, half as a public service for those who want to come watch. It’s at Upper Jay … It’s at the covered bridge … It will be in Ausable Forks in about 10 minutes. Be there if you want to see the show.
Ice jams in New York are obviously nothing new. In 1909, the state contacted the U.S. War Department in hopes of blowing up an ice jam on the Niagara River; governments back then were more inventive when it came to problem solving.
Both the Niagara and the Ausable are north-flowing rivers, upon which destructive ice jams are more common. A couple of degrees of additional warmth to the south can create a tipping point that, as happened recently, combined with rain and snowmelt, breaks up weeks or months of ice accumulation and sends it barreling downstream with unyielding force.
Still, ice jams remain more curiosity than calamity. Ice, whether it’s used as building material or for sport, is part of Adirondack culture, so we excuse its poor behavior and propensity to treat cars like billiard balls and snap off fence posts like toothpicks. It is, rather, an article of recreation, of study and even of cuisine.
My neighbor Burt, who was born in the Forks, said that when an ice jam broke, families would use the windfall to pack ice cream churns and set to cranking out a frozen treat, a tradition that carried on even after the advent of the home freezer.
Ice jams don’t happen every year; it takes a confluence of several climatic events to produce a good one. Nor are ice jams always destructive. Like the logs that choked the rivers a century or more ago, the ice can wash out without drama. But if one log or one block of ice were to go sideways and all bets are off.
To reduce the likelihood that logs would jam, rivers such as the East Branch were widened and straightened, which had the unintended effect of creating a perfect, ice-making machine.
As a remedy, the Ausable River Association and its partners are in the early stages of a project that will restore the East Branch to a more natural state. It will not end ice jams, but it will mitigate their damage. Early returns show that the first of 13 planned excavations of the river channel near Upper Jay successfully expedited the ice’s exit.
This is addressing climatic events not by fighting nature, but by putting things back to the way nature intended.
Photos by Tim Rowland
Editor’s note: This first appeared in Adirondack Explorer’s “Explore More” newsletter. Click here to sign up.