Unshackled from February’s grip

By Dodge Morgan

When you live on an island in a deep-water bay, you assume that walking home is not an option. This, however, is not the case if your island is in Maine in the winter of 2000.

This year’s deep freeze in the Northeast turned many bays into platforms of ice like in no winter of recent memory. On Saturday, Jan. 22, Quahog Bay in Harpswell was mostly open water. Sunday, the bay was a gigantic ice rink a square mile in size. The sudden ice averaged six inches thick, four inches of sludge topped with a solid crust tough enough to support a pyramid of Bruins (players or bears). Seawater freezes at a temperature about -2 degrees Celsius. The air temperature had for more than a week been way, way sub-zero with constantly strong winds sucking up whatever heat was left in the brine. It was nature’s way of telling me my island isolation was an illusion because the moat was gone.

I could have walked home. But I didn’t have the heart or the balls to tread where a short time ago I had been sailing. The ice looked durable enough, but the island looked a long way off across a span in which I was accustomed to watching osprey scoop fish. My island transportation, Wingnut, sat like a landmark as fixed in place as on a foundation of concrete, her beam squeezed narrower by the day. If I do trek there, I thought, it would be prudent to scoot along with an inflatable; but if we do droop through into liquid, will I be able to pull myself back up on the other side ice? I wimped and wussied over these thoughts for several days

Then an amazing event happened. The Coast Guard vessel Shackle, a brute of a boat designed to tend buoys and carve up ice, barreled into the bay. Ice flew everywhere. What an awesome sight she was. Shards of ice exploded from her bow and slush erupted in her wake and cracks shot out from her all around. One pass made a river in the bay. More passes made tributaries until the bay became an archipelago of ice islands. She gingerly poked a stream to Wingnut and my commuter was afloat again. When she was close by, I could see her crew and they all looked to me to be very big kids having a grand old time in enjoyment of a job they damned well knew was being well done.

“Move off in the outgoing tide”, the skipper called over. After the Shackle departed, the bay settled down into a pool of cubes. We edged Wingnut through to clear water south and the way was a cacophony of collisions. I did get home that afternoon. But I didn’t stay home that night because a west wind was blowing the islets of ice back into the island to block passages.

Two days after the Shackle break-up invasion, the southern bay cleared, “woof,” as suddenly as it had frozen. Then, day by day, blue water moved north. A southwest wind would thaw some and a north wind would follow to flush frozen flotsam out to sea.

It is mid-February now. Wingnut is back to her original beam width and I have open access to home. But I just don’t want to leave. I walk the island in my snowshoes and try to identify my neighbors by their tracks – squirrels, raccoons and what I think is either a coyote or a fisher. The chickadees and the crows are happy to see me and three bald eagles are putting up with me. It is so very quiet. My moat is wide again. I wallow in the delicious aloneness here.

Dodge Morgan broke all sorts of records when he single-handed American Promise around the world without stopping in 1985 and ’86. He lives on Snow Island in Brunswick, Maine.