March 13, 2013

On thin ice: Smelt shacks float away from Randolph camp

By Susan M. Cover
State House Bureau

RANDOLPH — Four unoccupied ice shacks broke away from Worthing's Smelt Camp on Tuesday, requiring a response from the Maine Marine Patrol and the Gardiner Fire Department before they could be hauled back to shore.

click image to enlarge

Jimmy Worthing, left, and a member of his smelt camp crew retrieve a shack floating on a sheet of ice Tuesday in the Kennebec River in Randolph after several shacks drifted away from Worthing's Smelt Camps. Worthing and a crew broke ice with a boat and towed several stray shacks back to shore.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

"It was a dangerous situation for a little while," said Marine Patrol Officer Matthew Sinclair, who went to the scene. "Fortunately, they were in very shallow water."

Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher noticed that the shacks were unstable on his way to work, and Sinclair said he arrived there at 9:30 a.m. to find four shacks had broken away on the ice.

"The ice disappeared a little quicker than anyone anticipated," Sinclair said. "They were greeted with an early morning crack of the ice."

Marine Resources had a boat on standby and Gardiner Fire sent a crew of four who were available on shore while owner Jimmy Worthing and others worked from a boat to pull the shacks back in. The smelt camps are at 145 Water St.

Worthing did not return a phone call seeking comment Tuesday. Worthing has said previously that he checks the ice daily for thickness and that the smelting season at Worthing's camps is typically January through March 15, weather permitting.

Sinclair said Worthing would have faced a $500 fine per shack for littering if he had not recovered the shacks.

Sinclair said that as Worthing and his crew navigated around large chunks of ice Tuesday morning, he instructed them to make sure they had personal flotation devices available in the boat in case one of them went overboard.

Typically, the Coast Guard sends cutters up the river from Merrymeeting Bay to Gardiner at this time of year to break up the ice. Last week, however, the U.S. Geological Survey determined there was not enough ice to warrant the annual ritual.

Also last week, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife issued an ice warning after a man went through the ice in his truck on Hermon Pond in central Maine while retrieving his ice fishing shack. The warning noted that the ice is "quickly becoming unstable" and recommended testing the thickness of ice with a chisel or auger, or checking with local bait shops to ask about thin ice.

Susan Cover -- 621-5643

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