The Maine Winters I Remember — And the Ones Yet to Come

The author of the book The Last Winter recalls the cold, carefree Maine winters of his youth — and considers the transformed winters ahead.

The Maine Winters I Remember — And the Ones Yet to Come
By Porter Fox
Illustrated by Michael Byers
From our December 2021 issue

Skim ice grew from the lakeshores on cold fall nights. Sometimes, it made it to the center of a pond as early as October, only to be melted back the next day by a weak but still warm autumnal sun. We kept track, gazing through car or bus windows, on the way to school or off-island for a soccer game. The ice came painfully slow — long after the colors had turned and the leaves fallen, after the harbor emptied and the long, dreary school year was well underway. As long as it came before the first snow, we were happy.

Winter arrives piecemeal on the coast of Maine. Buffered by temperate waters, the coast is doused with sleet and rain while storms coat the interior with epic blizzards. Later in the season, we would pray for snow. In November and December, though, when you could see your breath at night and the first nor’easters of the winter sank half the dinghies tied to the town dock, we waited for black ice — that thin crystal membrane that turned millions of gallons of lake water into the world’s greatest skating rink.

When it finally came, the ice on Mount Desert Island came all at once, locking Echo Lake, Long Pond, Eagle Lake, and the tight, rocky circle that hems in Somes Pond in a thin, glassy layer. It spanned the depths, sagging a bit in the middle and flaking along the shoreline. If it snowed, then we were done. The flakes mixed with lake water and formed an impenetrable slush we could neither shovel nor skate through. When the cold came fast, with a high-pressure system and no precipitation, the entire island transformed overnight.

It is possible to lose track of what is the sky and what is the Earth when skating on black ice. It feels a bit like flying: gliding effortlessly in one direction on one perfectly even stratum. You become pure momentum, free of friction, moving at five or ten miles an hour. I remember mile-long shore-to-shore skates on Long Pond, skimming on Echo Lake over a latticework of flotsam, frozen minnows, submerged rocks, and tree stumps. You could glide for a half hour with the wind at your back, watching the occasional trout or bass wriggle into the depths. If the ice stayed long enough, we would get out pylons and hockey sticks and drum up a pickup game in the middle of the lake. Sometimes, we played five-on-five; sometimes, two-on-one on a half rink. It always got competitive, until a missed shot skittered a quarter mile past the posts and both sides took a breather.

As winter took hold, battered steel thermoses, hunting socks, pom-pom hats, and down jackets emerged from the basement. At least two weekends were devoted to stacking wood in neat rows in the garage. The season was a frontier, just as Maine was a frontier to many of us back-to-the-land families who showed up in the 1970s. My family lived in upstate New York before moving to Maine. The Köppen-Geiger climate-classification system defined our home in New York as “humid continental,” which means a few months of real winter and about seven months of camping weather. Köppen-Geiger classified our new home on Mount Desert Island as “warm summer,” which, at that time, loosely translated as “the only time it’s warm is eight weeks in summer.” A local confirmed this a few days after we arrived. “You got two seasons,” he said. “July and winter.”

Muddy snowbanks lined Route 3 the day we drove in. I don’t remember this; I was three years old when we moved. I do remember nor’easters blowing in the front doors of our house and blocking the driveway with heaps of snow. We bought new parkas that first winter, plus L.L.Bean boots, thick socks, and bright-red long underwear. Week by week, days grew colder and darker as we learned how to exist in our new, winterized world.

If the black ice held out, we would scramble to borrow an ice boat, assemble it, and launch it on a lake. The first sail looked like an amateur rocket launch. Motorcycle helmets were mandatory. In a strong breeze, metal-frame “skimmer” boats did zero to thirty in about three seconds — and were almost always knocked over by a gust. The boats had one mainsail and ran on three sharp steel blades, each about a foot long. The acceleration when the wind hit the sail was shocking: head pinned back, hands clinging to the main sheet and windward rail, feet pressing on steel steering pegs. It was almost impossible to turn and tack, so we would run on a close reach for a half mile at a dizzying speed before wiping out. Another incredible quality of ice boating: when you inevitably capsized, the fall onto frictionless ice was like falling off a small stool — hardly any impact, followed by a quarter-mile starfish until you slid to a stop.

Around the end of January, another ice event was not so comfortable. The winter carnival was a tradition on the island. It was a kind of county fair, albeit a very small one, with seemingly no real organization and no one in charge — more like a tailgate party inside a hockey rink with no sport to cheer on. The rides instilled as much fear as joy. The premier attraction was the “inner-tube drag,” on which a 4×4 pickup truck dragged a long rope tied to a half-dozen black tubes. The driver of the pickup had very likely imbibed a few beers. I say this having sat on one of those tubes many times, feeling certain the driver was unaware he was dragging a dozen kids at high speed. To this day, it remains one of the most frightening and painful experiences of my life: straight drag-race runs, corners so tight that the tubes whipped in front of the truck’s rear tires, full-face abrasions from wiping out in crusted snow.

It is possible to lose track of what is the sky and what is the earth when skating on black ice. It feels a bit like flying.

In the heart of winter, when frigid low-pressure troughs dumped feet of snow across the state, covering up the black ice, we ditched our skates and broke out skis. There’s real cold in the north woods: mornings when airborne frost makes sun dogs and circumzenithal arcs in the sky; negative-30-degree nights when trees explode and snow dries into a kind of moon dust. Our family budget was tight, so we drove our station wagon to Big Squaw, near Moosehead Lake, a humbler mountain than the resorts farther south, and stayed at a little motor lodge with a bowling alley in the basement. Getting down Squaw was an adventure — narrow, rocky trails with occasional exposed cliffs and trees in the middle. As we grew up and got hooked on skiing, we moved on to Sugarloaf — a Hollywood-esque scene in comparison, where Olympic ski racers and iconic filmmakers like Greg Stump skied hard and partied harder. We learned to ski through the woods on Double Bitter and scratched our way down the headwall on Narrow Gauge.

The sport ran in my family. My grandfather had been an avid skier and taught his five children how to turn on a thin layer of hay in their backyard. I hated skiing with a remarkable passion at first, until I turned 12 and felt the confluence of vectors that make up a proper ski turn. I became obsessed and worked various jobs to afford new skis and lift tickets. I cut out exercise routines from the back pages of ski magazines, then performed the bizarre hopping and squatting sequences in my room. In high school, my parents rented a run-down, one-room cabin a few miles from Sugarloaf for $500 a season. There was no running water. Heat came sporadically from a kerosene furnace salvaged from World War II. My mother, despite her love of skiing, was so understandably opposed to the state of the cabin — and to using the outhouse in the winter — that my parents stopped coming. The cabin was unceremoniously handed down to me and a group of teenage ski hooligans who became my best friends. We practiced our craft during the day, skiing bumps so tall that we vanished into the troughs between them. Daffies were in, mule kicks out. I broke a finger, dislocated both shoulders, and sustained my first concussion learning to ski fast and throw tricks.

This was real winter, with windchills on the mountain regularly reaching negative 85 degrees. At night, Budweisers vanished by the hundreds as we stayed up as late as possible — in part to avoid freezing to death when the heater inevitably died. The loft in the shack was so hot it was hard to breathe; the ground floor was so cold you would wake up with frost in your eyelashes. The only cooking device was a toaster oven. Stouffer’s pizza, Pop-Tart heaven.

I think about those subzero days and our search for black ice often now. I spend much of my time writing about climate change and the unthinkable transformation coming to the Northeast. By now, it is well known that the Gulf of Maine is the planet’s fastest-warming large body of water. Perhaps less known is the fact that, while the state of Maine has warmed 1.5 degrees since 1970, Maine winter temperatures have risen four degrees. Across the nation, temperatures are rising faster in the winter, in northern regions, at higher elevations, and at night: a death sentence for ski areas that traditionally make most of their snow after hours. Researchers from Ontario’s University of Waterloo recently concluded that more than half of the ski resorts in the Northeast will likely be forced to close by midcentury for lack of snow.

The situation is similar around the world, where the Arctic is melting at a historic rate, the Alps have lost more than half of their glacial ice, and even the Himalayas are melting out at an unprecedented rate. The primary cause is beyond doubt: until we stop burning fossil fuels, the Great Melt will continue to accelerate. If the world continues status quo, winter temperatures by late century — just 50 Christmases from now — will rise somewhere between 10 and 13 degrees. Under that scenario, Maine’s snow season, defined as days of snow cover, will drop by half.

If the world continues status quo . . . Maine’s snow season, defined as days of snow cover, will drop by half.

There are a few silver linings in the Pine Tree State’s forecast, thanks to its northern latitude and topographic diversity. For every degree of global warming, the atmosphere holds about 4 percent more moisture, so more snow in the winter is possible — but so is more rain, where temperatures rise above freezing. The last New England resorts likely to keep their lifts spinning will be in the north, including Sugarloaf and Big Squaw. But the climate crisis won’t stop at the end of this century. On our current track, in fact, it will just be warming up, bringing winter rain to ski slopes and snowscapes across the Northeast for centuries to come.

Of course, more winter rain often results in more black ice. One of my childhood friends still lives on the island and sends me photos every winter of some of the most astounding and surreal skating adventures I’ve ever seen. He and some pals bought Scandinavian skates with 16-inch blades — to glide better and spread out the weight of the skater on thin ice. They practice the northern European sport of “wild ice-skating,” in which you skate on the thinnest black ice possible, sometimes down to an inch-and-a-half thick.

Over the last few years, he has sent me photos of them skating across mirror-like ponds near Moosehead Lake and along lakeshores on Mount Desert Island, slaloming through alder forests, even cruising down flooded hiking trails. If only for a moment, it is a lovely reminder of winters past, of bundling up to walk a half mile to school, of listening to the radio and praying for a snow day, of piling sleeping bags and skis into the trunk to spend a weekend at Sugarloaf. It is enough to recall the dead silence of a snowy morning when crystals stack up on front yards, telephone lines, and lobsterboats in the harbor and to recollect the wonderfully naive innocence of our childhoods, when everything in the world seemed too big, too exciting, and too powerful to ever change.

Since the 1970s, a million square miles of spring snow cover have vanished from North America, Porter Fox reports in his new book The Last Winter: The Scientists, Adventurers, Journeymen, and Mavericks Trying to Save the World ($28, hardcover; Little, Brown and Company). That’s one of the many startling stats and details the book lays out, as Fox explores how a warming climate is poised to affect the coldest reaches of the planet — and how what happens there will affect the planet’s other reaches. In the book, Fox crisscrosses the globe with a motley cast of scientists and adventurers to better understand the scale of the catastrophe and how humans might yet respond. Among those is University of Maine climate scientist Seth Campbell, “a Han Solo–esque ice hustler” with whom Fox traverses Alaskan ice fields. The book’s portraits of men and women at the forefront of the climate crisis, working in some of Earth’s most extreme conditions, are as memorable as its lucid, elegiac forecast for the winters of tomorrow.

Down East Magazine, March 2024 cover

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