March is a bit of a trickster here in Maine. It’s the time of the year when the weather just doesn’t know what it wants to do. My first-grade teacher Mrs. Peterson taught our class that March either roars in like a lion and goes out like a lamb or it comes in like a lamb and roars out like a lion. She was wrong. March does neither. Instead, March is a weekly parade of lions and lambs scampering all over the place…
I’ve been a terrible failure in this offseason’s ice fishing excursions and wanting for wilder adventures. True, there have been some rainy days and howling winds. And I still haven’t upgraded from the hand auger. But I can only send the blame to weather and lack of gear so far until I find myself pacing floors on a sunny pleasant morning in early March debating what to do, where to go. There’s a lot of wild beauty out there. I’m prone to get just as overwhelmed with my options out there as I do in a super-sized grocery store. The DeLorme Maine Atlas and Gazetteer is harder for me to put down than an LL Bean or Cabella’s catalog. I had an inkling I’d find some real struggle here—After all, I’m not the best planner, preferring instead a bird, a breeze, or a beam of sunlight to provide my inspiration and point the way. So here I am. I didn’t pace too long this morning and actually got out at a decent hour (before 10:00 AM I think) with no real plan. I hopped in the car and backed out of the driveway. Who knows which way I’ll turn when I reach the end of the street? Not even I know.
Today I find myself cruising out the Ave, up over the hill and down into Manchester where I bang the right onto Route 41 and slip up through Readfield and back down the big hill still on 41 towards Mount Vernon. At the bottom of the big hill, I park my car—Torsey Lake conservation trail, part of the Kennebec Land Trust. I take a little snowshoe hike. After the rains last week the deep snow in these woods has a very thick solid crust that supports all my weight but its rolling smooth slick crust is difficult to maintain traction on. The grip of my snowshoes is a must. I’ve never poked down this trail before. The woods are dark with shadow and sun-dappled spots through the partially bare canopy onto the brilliant snow. A brook meanders here and the land slopes gently downhill. The trail at Torsey Lake comes out along the southwest shore. In summer this is a thickly grown in swampy shoreline lake section. Cattail and highbush blueberry are to be seen in tufts here and there at the small cove I come out on but the rest of this swamp lies flattened under the thick blanket of ice and crunchy snow. I briefly think I should have brought my gear; this is prime big pickerel area. Am I snowshoeing or fishing? I don’t think this shoreline would be all that attractive in the summertime what with the thick swamp obscuring the lake and the swarming clouds of biting insects that would assuredly inhabit such a place in time. But this place for sure must be a great little hike in the fall. The lower woods are a good mix of soft and hardwoods with majestic white pine, various oaks, paper birch, and some very impressive and beautiful yellow birch (Thoreau’s favorite). This cove must be electric with color in the fall. I make a mental note for an October return. Back at the car I push father up 41 and detour up the Kimball Pond Rd for a look at the pond and a spring water fill up from the Vienna spring. Still being pulled out further I continue up route 41 for another mile or so before spotting the Trask road and thinking hmmm what’s up here? I bet this cuts through. Yeah, this cuts through—it doesn’t. Up to a hilltop opening with taller forested hills surrounding it in the distance. Beautiful! Just beautiful. Open skies, land spilling down to brook valley on one side, Flying Pond on the other, and a spine of a ridge cutoff into thick spruce woods. A dead-end, but a sign at a park-out Vienna Woods. Another KLT property. A discovery! I pass it up because I will be back. I will be back when the wild leeks awake from their slumber when the ostrich ferns have poked through the sandy loam and begun to unfurl their green heads.
All the months and seasons of the year have a “normal” and March has its normal too. The first days of the month were pretty normal for March and then old man winter decided to let us all know that he was still in charge. We took a trip to my brother-in-law’s family camp up in Rockwood on Moosehead Lake the first weekend in March. The wind and the temperatures were brutal and severe such as you’d expect in the dead of a Maine January. Our intent was to hit the ice and pull one of Moosehead lake’s legendary landlocked salmon through it. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other plans. So out we went Saturday morning with the temp hovering around zero degrees Fahrenheit and a 20 mile an hour steady breeze. Moosehead Lake now covered in more than two feet of solid ice is vast and windswept. What’s worse is that due to an earlier warm-up, underneath a thick blanket of fluffy white snow lies another thick blanket of pure slush-water being insulated by the snow. This slushy liquid was quickly turning to a cement-like mixture that hardened to the exposed frigid open air. Away from the shelter of shore, it was all a bit too much for the crew we had with us, which included a toddler of nine months. We set up in a broad cove right at the shoreline and relatively shallow water. While only mildly more protected from the savage wind by the proximity of the shoreline the generous sun shown strongly in the early March air and two pop-up shelters (one with heat) provided ample respite. Unfortunately, the area we set up in wasn’t the usual productive area for the famous landlocked salmon we’d come for. With at least 30 tip-ups—each baited with squirming live smelt—and several hours on the ice, all that was netted was one undersized brook trout. The looming shadow of Mt Kineo across the frozen lake laughed at us.
I woke up early that Sunday morning and took the back way back home. The breeze had stopped but the temperature was still in single digits. Just before leaving the village of Rockwood on Rt 15 a family of deer bolted across the road, the cold march morning sun shimmered off their flanks. I took the solidly iced cutoff road over to Rt. 201 and rose up onto a bright ridge of crystalline skies and mountains blanketed in shimmering snow, now still cold and deep. This place not only seeming like a place back in time but also a place where winter came on more hard and heavy than we experienced back home in Augusta. It was like another country up there. This frozen world of wild beauty only gradually receded as I wound down through the Forks… Bingham… Solon… the mighty Kennebec River always at my shoulder.
Monday morning, I checked my bait bucket, and the remaining smelt we’re still kicking so I donned my gear and took a quick spin up to Webber Pond. Though still a cold morning the scene was a world away from the one on Moosehead Lake just two days prior. There was enough open water at the dam to push my entry onto the pond many yards beyond the boat landing. The pond for the most part was a fairly slick solid sheet of ice with not a lick of crunchy frozen snow for traction. Having left my crampons at home I had to do a shuffle up the pond. I set up off the first point on the western shore where there were already a few holes presumably from a fisherman yesterday and now frozen back over. These were very easy to punch through with my hand auger. I set three traps and drilled a 4th hole to jig. In the summer the spot I was sitting at teems with warm water pond fish—whopping bass, yellow and white perch, crappie, pickerel—but there are also landlocked salmon in Webber Pond and I was hoping for redemption from the weekend. It was a weekday morning, and the entire pond was empty. Without the constant sigh of the breeze sounds carried across the frozen pond more distinctly. There was the buzz of saws and bangs of hammers from men working on a camp down the shore, but it was not a nuisance for their sounds were punctuated and interrupted by louder and sweeter birdsong. And underneath that melody were the sounds of the water moving under the ice—a gurgle, a groan, a pop—something to keep you awake and on your feet if the caffeine ain’t doing it. As we wound towards noon the sun crept higher and hotter in the sky. You could say the fishing was slow. Not a single flag all morning. Looking down the shore towards the boat landing I could see more open water and big puddles forming that were frozen into the ice when I had crossed it just hours before. After gathering my traps, I jigged for a bit longer and pulled up a young pickerel. Not exactly a trophy game fish but at least I wasn’t skunked entirely. I shuffled back off the slick rapidly thinning ice and home for lunch.
I poked into Hutchinson pond in West Gardiner/Farmingdale on Tuesday morning—a place I’d never been but one I saw on the Kennebec Land Trust Website. These KLT properties have become great local exploratory excursions for me. Hutchinson Pond is a larger pond than I expected to find. I didn’t bring the auger or the pole, just an exploratory. We got up above 45 degrees and the sun was bright, beaming hard, and nearly as high as spring—straining for it at least. The dense low snow finally softened in the warm sunshine and made walking less treacherous for once. It’s been a hard uneven layer of solid frozen what have you from February for several weeks now. In an old open pasture the sun blasts off the snow so hard it’s like being at a summer beach. Hoofing across the softening snow I perspire and unzip a bit. Birdsong is lively! They’re happy for this warmth too! The woods here are uneven and swampy in spots with a bog off to the southwest, dense and dark stands of young competing pine thicken what was once open pasture mixed with larger older stands on the other side of an old track and continuing down to the western shore of the pond. Huge old white birch, white pine, and various other hardwoods I’m not able to identify yet. The pond ice here starting to look pretty rough gray and slushy. As the week wears on it will get even warmer, up into the 50s, with more sunshine. I begin to think that this is really great! Even if we take another sharp turn to the cold of winter (this is still Maine in March) the idea of spring has already bored in, and I am thinking about the alewife, I am dreaming of the fiddlehead. But still, a return to winter again might be nice. There really was so little of it this year and nothing serious. How ’bout a friggin’ huge springtime nor’ Easter that dumps like 3 feet of the white stuff? Let’s give these snowshoes a workout! Besides, I’m tired of all this ice sitting/ice standing! It’s pretty yeah but man’s gotta move.
So, move I did. Thursday morning, with the sun bouncing off the driveway and the snow in the front yard melting I cleaned out my car and put the ice fishing gear away, and hung the snowshoes in the garage. It could be premature. It’s probably premature, but the week’s warmth made me anxious. AND THEN the weekend winds blew in again strong steady and cold. Those frigid March winds howled all weekend like a freight train coming in from the northwest…
It’s Monday, March 15th now. Once again, the sun is brilliant and bright and high in the late winter Sky. But March is a trickster again. That golden sun blasting my bay window is a deceptive sun. We didn’t even crack the teens today!