The Portland Phoenix

Letter from Aroostook: Ice out

Aroostook River

The frozen Aroostook River, just below the center of Washburn, on April 12. (Portland Phoenix/Jan Grieco)

Spring has arrived on the calendar here, but unlike the southern half of Maine, we’re still up to our knees in snow.

While you might be mowing your lawn, much of The County is still covered in snow, and it is also bordered and crisscrossed with rivers and streams and dotted with ponds. They make for great fishing, swimming, boating, and canoeing, but spring breakup – the process of the rivers thawing and moving – puts everyone on their toes, especially anyone living near any rivers.

Snowmelt means a rise in all the streams and rivers, and under the worst conditions, can mean serious flooding. 

When I was young we lived in Vermont and my dad was an inspector with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a flood control dam being built in central Vermont. In the winter, after church and a midday Sunday dinner, we always went for a ride and an ice cream so dad could check the rise and flow of the rivers. Here in The County, the Emergency Management Agency in Caribou serves the same function, according to Darren Woods, the EMA director. 

Woods said spring breakup is still looking good. There have been warm days and cold nights that slow the runoff from melting snow, but it all goes into rivers, and rain is a bigger factor than anything in how things go. 

“We’re keeping an eye on it,” Woods said, “and checking with the weather service in Caribou every couple of days.” 

While he doesn’t think this year will be bad, what had been snow is now rain, and that means being extra vigilant, especially in areas that are prone to flooding that can affect homes and roads. Two towns that are especially vulnerable are Washburn and Crouseville, just down the road from us along the Aroostook River, which as of midweek had not really broken up. 

“We take videos and post them on Facebook to warn people,” Woods said, “and that makes a big difference.”   

Spotters keep the EMA posted on where water is rising quickly, and some areas are always likely to be underwater from snowmelt and rising water levels, but it’s still hard to predict where it will flood. Woods added that people can always call EMA if they spot an area that is flooding or close to it, which could result in road closures. 

This year’s melt was the most severe since 1981, and the Aroostook County Flood Watch page on Facebook shows photos of high water below a layer of jumbled ice, especially in the northernmost regions along the Allagash and St. John rivers. Roads were closed in some areas, and folks were stuck at home until the rivers dropped a bit and roads could be cleared. 

Rains have both helped and hindered. While ice jams melt more quickly with rain, that can mean more water and chunks of ice building up, especially with snow and ice converting to water and running into already swollen rivers and streams. Even in our back field, the 2 feet of snow is disappearing quickly, and little rivulets are forming that run downhill and eventually into Beaver Brook and to the Aroostook in Washburn. 

While most County folk know where to avoid, it is always wise to check either the Aroostook EMA or the National Weather Service in Caribou before starting out to watch the ice breakup and flow. It’s a massive force, far greater than any mere human or car. But if you can get to a safe place to watch and listen, the ice cracks and groans as it moves to make it a sight you’ll never forget.

Jan Grieco is a retired college instructor and former newspaper reporter. She lives in Perham, where she farms and lives off the land.

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