I always enjoyed stories about Maine’s outdoors, the more offbeat the better. I saw a story in one of the local Maine papers about a fisherman’s car going through the ice on a local lake, and I got to wondering: How many cars go through the ice every winter? How many get recovered, and how many stay on the bottom? This story was the result.
By ARTHUR FREDERICK
AUGUSTA, Maine — John Curtis hasn’t seen his 1973 Plymouth since one frigid day in January 1983 when he decided to drive it across the ice on Swan Lake. The ice broke, and Curtis jumped out just as the vehicle sank to the bottom.
Curtis’s Plymouth has remained on the bottom of the lake ever since. Divers tried to locate the car for several months but were never able to pinpoint its location in Swan Lake, which is more than 100 feet deep in some spots.
‘We never did get that one out,’ said Henry Hilton, a wildlife biologist for the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife who keeps track of such things. ‘A diver went down on several different days in the summer and fall, but after about 30 hours of game warden time we discontinued our efforts.’
Curtis’s misfortune notwithstanding, state wardens have an excellent record when it comes to hauling up the vehicles that crash through the ice on Maine’s lakes and ponds every winter.
Hilton said it seems more and more vehicles have plunged through thin ice in recent years — 15 in 1989 and 17 in 1988. Some belong to ice fishermen, who like to drive out to their favorite spots, and others to people who enjoy cruising on the ice just for fun.
Six vehicles sank to the bottom of Maine lakes and ponds in 1985 and in 1986, and only two were reported in 1987.
Another ‘three or four’ vehicles have already met the same fate since the start of 1990, he said.
The state Legislature passed a law three years ago giving the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife responsibility for making sure the vehicles are removed from the water.
Hilton said his department urges owners to get the vehicles out of the water as soon as possible. But he said extra pressure is applied when vehicles end up in a lake that is used as a source of drinking water.
‘Many lakes which are used in the winter (for recreation) are the water supplies for surrounding areas,’ Hilton said. ‘It stands to reason that lakes that are water supplies are often located near large populations of people and those are the lakes that are often heavily used for recreation.’
One such case involves a 1977 Jeep pickup that plunged through the ice on Jordan Pond at Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island in mid-March, while Aaron Higgins of Hancock was driving it across the ice.
Higgins managed to get out, but the truck sank in 120 feet of water at the north end of the pond, an area that serves as the drinking water supply for the town of Seal Harbor.
Because the water is too deep for divers using scuba equipment, the truck will remain on the bottom until state officials figure out a way to reach it, perhaps using divers with hard-hat equipment.
The routine for removing submerged vehicles is fairly simple. Divers go down with large air bags, or with inner tubes from large trucks or other commercial vehicles. The bags or tubes are attached to the vehicles and then inflated with an air line.
‘They inflate those inner tubes and the cars just pop right to the surface,’ Hilton explained.
Cars and trucks are not the only items that end up in the state’s lakes and ponds. A number of snowmobiles crash through the ice every year as well, officials said.
‘We suspect that a lot of them aren’t even reported, and many of them are retrieved and we are never informed,’ said Gary Anderson, head of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s Safety Division.
As many as 35 snowmobiles may have ended up in the water this past year, Anderson estimated, but most of them have been successfully recovered.
The wooden fishing shacks that shelter ice fishermen are supposed to be removed from the ice by spring. But many of the small shelters end up bobbing in the water after the ice melts. The shacks are an annoyance, but they don’t usually cause any serious pollution problems, Anderson said.
‘Many times they end up floating and they come ashore, and they get left for some poor camp owner to clean up,’ Anderson said.
Wardens and divers at Schoodic Lake north of Bangor have a more gruesome task before them during this year’s annual lake search. They will be looking for the bodies of two fishermen, who apparently drowned in the lake last September.
Glen Patterson, 31, and Jeffrey Hall, 33, both of Hampden, went out fishing in a small boat and never returned home. The boat was found overturned the next day.
Divers searched for several days, but cold weather caused the lake to freeze over before the bodies could be found.
Officials said the bodies may surface this spring once the ice melts. Otherwise, they could remain in the cold depths of Schoodic Lake forever.
‘Periodically we lose somebody in the water, and the depth and the water temperatures keep them from ever coming up,’ Anderson said. ‘There are several bodies in Sebago Lake that never floated back up over the years