In Vermont’s north country, spring’s true arrival is marked by “ice out” – when a special raft sinks into the water and sets off a chain of events that doesn’t end until July 4.
I keep it in my wallet, tucked behind my driver’s license and Mastercard—a lavender square of paper with my best guess for when winter will end. This year I’m betting April 2 at 11:27 a.m.
This guess cost me a buck, and if I’m correct, that is, if the “ice out” contraption—composed of a pallet, a cinder block, and a flag, tethered by 250 feet of nylon rope to a power source for the clock back on land—if that wacky raft, hunkered down on the frozen expanse called Joe’s Pond in West Danville, Vermont, eventually begins to ride low and slump in the thaw of a warm spell in late March, and if it actually starts to sink beneath the pond’s chilly waters around breakfast time on April 2, and if its descent strains the rope such that it finally breaks the connection, stopping the clock at precisely 11:27 a.m. as the raft submerges into the newly liquefied pond, then I stand to collect $5K.
That’s right: five Grover Clevelands, and what’s more, come July, no matter who wins, everybody in the vicinity of Joe’s Pond will take delivery of their share of the prize. They’ll gather around the pond at dusk on Independence Day with their picnics and bug spray, and soon the sky above will fill with sparkles and crackles and scintillating stars falling to earth—as the fireworks display is funded by our hunches, those lavender tickets, those best guesses on the exact moment of winter’s end.
Joe’s Pond, make no mistake, is no Golden Pond, for its late summers and autumns are more prone to barky squawks of numerous Canada geese than the spooky piccolo of loons. It’s less known for its scant romantic coves and more for its broad shores studded with summer retreats, camps, and cottages—the east side claimed mainly by people from St. Johnsbury, the west side by folks from Barre—a bunch of these places inhabited year-round, so that you’ll never sit on the dock and think you’ve given civilization the slip. Nope, you’re neighbor to neighbor here, on the rim of this great expanse of water—one of the largest bodies of water in Vermont that doesn’t spill over into the category of lake.
In fact, it was some of the pond’s year-rounders, jawboning over their coffee and doughnuts at Hastings Store one late March about when the ice would go out, who founded the contest. Leaning his elbows on the counter, the store’s current owner, Garey Larrabee, tells us, “My wife’s great-grandfather would write his name and guess on a dollar and tack it to the ceiling.” Others would, too. Then spring would come, the ice would go, and whoever came closest kept the kitty.
A more formal arrangement got under way back in the 1980s, when Jules Chatot Sr., then owner of North Barre Granite Co., began keeping track of bets on a slip of paper he kept in his shirt pocket. Jules was a ringleader; with his big shock of white hair and mirthful blue eyes, he was at the center of the pond’s card games and parties. Other times you could hear his motor running—showing new residents around on his pontoon boat or gunning his snowmobile, off on another escapade. These little bets tucked in his shirt were Jules’s way of organizing spirited discussion over the big question: “Yes, we know the ice is gonna retreat from the edges, but when will it finally go out?”
From a pocket-size affair it grew. In 1988 the Joe’s Pond Association assumed responsibility, and it became a bona-fide contest as they sold between 400 and 500 tickets that year. Twenty-six years later, they now manage a sophisticated betting pool, printing 15,000 tickets, available for purchase over the counter from Garey or online by Paypal and a major credit card.
Furthermore, two security cameras are trained on the ice-out pallet. The 30-plus-year-old bedroom clock emeritus has been replaced by a large round “Warrior” electric, specially made to withstand weather. And instead of stationing the enterprise off Homer Fitts’s camp by the pond’s public access on Route 2, they’ve moved it over by the Rossis’ house on West Shore Road.
What hasn’t changed is winter, which in the Northeast Kingdom is long and, even with a spate of wimpy temperatures and skimpy snows in recent years, still leaves its inhabitants yearning for an intimation of spring. Two years ago that “sign” occurred on April 8 at 5:25 p.m. The year before, it was April 27 at 10:17 p.m., and before that April 5 at 2:46 p.m. And last year, despite my best guess (April 27 at 6:20 p.m.), it was Barre resident Gary Clark who hit nature’s lottery with his prediction of 8:44 a.m. on Wednesday, April 24.
Only five days before it sank and stopped the clock, I’d stood on the shore of Joe’s Pond and squinted at the ice-out raft, with its cinderblock cargo and orange flag. The flag post was clearly listing to the right, and though still solidly afloat, the ice spread across the lake looked rotten, like old linoleum with gray water stains. Cold in the brisk wind, I shoved my hands into my jacket, where my left hand grazed the lumpy wallet harboring my lavender ticket. Just one more week, I wished for my little ticket: Please be chilly and cloudy for one more week.
Nevertheless, there were little wins and gains for spring over the following days: The tree swallows coasted into town; a white-throated sparrow began chanting on a branch; and then, just as the last bubbles of the newly sunken contraption were bursting at the surface, the first squeaks of peepers. But the last vestiges, the final payout, are blessedly yet to come, when the other half of the betting pool goes to Northstar Fireworks in East Montpelier.
Jules Chatot Jr. admits that when he was a boy, the Joe’s Pond Association would shoot boomers off his family’s front lawn, and he would naively think, “Wow! What a party!” for his father, born on July 3rd. Now the professional display of sky dazzlers comes replete with names that seem to sum up the North Country winter’s yield to spring and summer and fall and back to winter with a haiku–like economy: “Midnight Snow with Green Pistil,” “Crackling Wave to Green,” “Brocade with Orange Strobing Pistil,” followed by “Red and Silver Cascade.”
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