Friday, March 28, 2014

Ice-Cutters, Thoreau, and Maine's Watery Heart

Ice storm, Kennebec County, December 2013

We have a first sign of spring: the Coast Guard has sent an ice-cutter up the Kennebec River, an annual project intended to fend off the worst effects of seasonal flooding. An article in the Morning Sentinel offers a visceral explanation of exactly what happens when the cutter forces its way through the river ice:
[The ice-cutter] uses a “bubbling” system on the ship’s side, which pumps air between the hull and the water to cut down on resistance against the ship to cut through ice at good speeds — usually between 10 and 15 knots, or up to 17 mph. 
The ship creates large wakes. When the hull itself fractures the ice, the waves ripple through ice off to the sides of the boat. 
On the bridge, it sounds somewhat like a car going through slush. On the deck, it’s a crashing and crunching sound. Fractures create more fractures, often going most of the way to shore. 
But cutting isn’t a brute-force operation. It’s more of a carefully crafted ballet, with navigating, turning and docking the ship taking the attention of many of the crew members. 
They need to pay close attention to the tides, their speed and their course. Certain narrow spots are the most treacherous, including The Chops, where the steady ice [begins] and converging water flows mark Merrymeeting Bay’s connection to the lower Kennebec.
Harmony is twenty miles away from the Kennebec, so our flooding concerns are tributarial. It's hard to track the links on a map, but we are sandwiched between the Kennebec to the west, the Piscataquis to the north, the Penobscot to the east. Every small inland town has a watery heart: sometimes a natural pond, sometimes a stream with an aged, crumbling dam, sometimes a vast, spring-fed bog. As Thoreau wrote in The Maine Woods, "the country is an archipelago of lakes." In this way Maine is very different from, say, Vermont, where ponds are scarce.

My sons, who have both spent long stretches canoeing through this watery wilderness, describe a landscape that strikingly resembles what Thoreau saw in the mid-nineteenth century:
The shores seemed at an indefinite distance in the moonlight. Occasionally we paused in our singing and rested on our oars, while we listened to hear if the wolves howled, for this is a common serenade, and my companions affirmed that it was the most dismal and unearthly of sounds; but we heard none this time. If we did not hear, however, we did listen, not without a reasonable expectation; that at least I have to tell,--only some utterly uncivilized, big-throated owl hooted loud and dismally in the drear and boughy wilderness, plainly not nervous about his solitary life, nor afraid to hear the echoes of his voice there. We remembered also that possibly moose were silently watching us from the distant coves, or some surly bear or timid caribou had been startled by our singing.
Today, a century and a half later, the drear and boughy wilderness lies dormant under several feet of snow. I can find no mention of snow in The Maine Woods: Thoreau, that doughty tourist, apparently knew better than to attempt a winter trek. Yet the mating cry of an utterly uncivilized, big-throated owl has been echoing lately, through the semi-darkness. His solitary life will become, briefly, less solitary. And I know that moose are silently watching me as I plod up and down the beaten snow paths; I know the surly bears are turning over in their sleep.

I also know that I will never startle a timid caribou with my singing, for there are no caribou left in Maine.

View from Borestone Mountain, Piscataquis County, October 2013

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