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Deep Thaw Continues: Lack of Significant Ice Melts Winter Sports Scene, Again

Bruce Templeton, of Claremont, uses pliers to remove a hook from the line of a tip-up while Guy Roberts, of Windsor, prepares to release a northern pike while ice fishing at Dewey’s Pond in Quechee on Sunday. The January thaw of the past few days softened the surface of the pond, but both Templeton and Roberts said they measured the ice at 6 or more inches in some places. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Bruce Templeton, of Claremont, uses pliers to remove a hook from the line of a tip-up while Guy Roberts, of Windsor, prepares to release a northern pike while ice fishing at Dewey’s Pond in Quechee on Sunday. The January thaw of the past few days softened the surface of the pond, but both Templeton and Roberts said they measured the ice at 6 or more inches in some places. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

After last year’s mild temperatures left Upper Valley winter sports enthusiasts without much to celebrate, seasonal conditions last month offered reason for optimism.

Yet for area ice skaters, conditions haven’t been quite seasonal enough. Popular outdoor skating venues Occom Pond and the Lake Morey Ice Skating Trail both remain closed, the longest in recent memory either has gone without use this late into the season.

The lack of an extended deep freeze — combined with thick snow cover prior to last week’s thaw — has rendered most surfaces below the 6-to-8 inch minimum thickness considered safe for heavy foot traffic. Snow acts as an insulator, causing the ice below it to require very low temperatures in order to freeze thoroughly.

When open, Dartmouth College-owned Occom Pond can draw more than 500 skaters in a single weekend onto its downtown Hanover surface. Longtime Dartmouth Outdoor Programs manager Mike Silverman said he can’t recall another year when it was yet to open for a single day by this point in the season.

“There have been times when we’ve had to close it during the January thaw, but we almost always have it open at some point before Christmas,” Silverman said. “The snow we had in December was good for the downhill ski areas, but not good in terms of keeping the pond frozen because it just never got cold enough. Some people have said, ‘Wait a minute, we had some really cold nights in there,’ but it was really only about four days when we had really cold weather. Thirty-two degrees is not cold enough to freeze a pond. You need single digits and low teens overnight for an extended period, and we just haven’t had that.”

Silverman estimated Occom Pond’s surface yesterday at about five inches thick, an inch less than what he considers safe for grooming equipment and about three inches away from being open to the public.

“Can you skate on six inches? Yes, but we prefer eight for somewhere that gets as much use as Occom does,” Silverman yesterday. “On a busy Saturday there, you can have 100 people skating around one small spot. We’ve had up to 750 people there over the course of a weekend.”

At approximately four miles, the Lake Morey Ice Skating Trail in Fairlee is the longest maintained ice skating trail in the U.S. The Upper Valley Trails Alliance covers its grooming expenses, though the largest fundraiser organized to help defray those costs, the Lake Morey Skate-A-Thon, was postponed for the second straight year on Jan. 5.

With participants pledging to skate laps around the trail in exchange for UVTA donations, the event has been rescheduled to Feb. 16.

“There’s probably 2-3 inches of solid black ice under the surface, but the top layer is slushy and filled with air holes,” said UVTA executive director Russell Hirschler. “The thaw we had recently will actually be good for that, because the slushy stuff at the top will melt and smooth over, but that only works if we get cold temperatures to follow it up.”

At the southern end of the lake, Lake Morey Resort plans to host the Vermont Pond Hockey Championships on Jan. 26-27. If it were this weekend, it would likely be postponed, but groomer Barry Larson is optimistic the ice could be thick enough by the end of the month.

“The weather reports I’ve seen say there should be a couple arctic fronts coming in over the next couple of weeks,” said Larson, who grooms the surface with the use of a Zamboni and an all-terrain vehicle equipped with a plow and brush. “Now we’ll just have to see if it actually comes or not.”

Despite the spotty conditions, ice fishermen haven’t been deterred from setting up bob houses on both Lake Morey and nearby Lake Fairlee. Joseph Weaver, owner of Country Boy’s Bait Shop in Fairlee, said anglers have gotten a later start than usual.

“Even though it wasn’t that cold last year, they were out there earlier than this,” Weaver said. “That’s basically because we didn’t have much snow. The early season this year belonged to the snowmobilers, but (ice fishing activity) is starting to get busier. Then again, we got some more snow (yesterday), so we’ll see if that slows things down again.”

Vermont and New Hampshire officials have emphasized the need to exercise caution while venturing onto Twin State ice surfaces, particularly after the region’s recent thaw.

Five men, four of whom had been ice fishing, fell through the ice of Lake Champlain on Sunday. Two of them required emergency rescue after falling through ice about three inches thick and about 300 feet off the shore of West Addison, Vt. In western Maine, the search is still on for the bodies of three snowmobilers presumed dead after falling through thin ice on Rangeley Lake on New Year’s Eve, according to the Portland Press Herald.

“Even if you get a week of really cold weather, if it’s 50 degrees the next week it’s going to thaw it out (significantly),” said New Hampshire Fish and Game conservation officer Heidi Murphy, who monitors ice conditions in 13 towns across Merrimack and Grafton counties and noted the presence of bob houses on Lake Sunapee. “We’re hoping people realize that after last week and think about safety if they’re going to go out.”

Vermont Fish & Wildlife information specialist John Hall recommends that until the next deep freeze, anglers should stick to smaller lakes and ponds or bay areas sheltered from high winds. More importantly, bring an auger or handled ice chisel and check the depth of each location.

“Just because the ice is safe right off the shore, doesn’t mean it’s going to be 200 yards out,” Hall said. “You’ve got to check the ice every time you switch spots.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.