An annual two-day ice fishing derby that draws thousands of people to Sebago Lake was canceled Saturday after seven people and numerous vehicles fell through thin ice.

All of the people who fell through the ice climbed out or were pulled out and there no reports of injuries or severe hypothermia, according to the Maine Warden Service and the derby’s organizer. The incidents happened in different areas around the lake, although the ice in Jordan Bay was especially unsafe, they said.

Several vehicles remained in the lake Saturday evening, including snowmobiles, ATVs and at least one pickup truck, officials said. The owners have 24 hours to get the vehicles out of the water under state law, said Deb Turcotte, spokeswoman for the Maine Warden Service.

”It’s unfortunate,” Turcotte said. ”This has been a tradition to have this ice fishing derby, and it helps so many local charities in the area.”

Last year, more than 4,000 people participated in the Maine Chevrolet Sebago Derby, which is the largest in the state and one of the largest in the country to take place on a single lake. Last year, the Sebago derby and a companion statewide derby raised more than $100,000 for charities such as Camp Sunshine, the Maine Children’s Cancer Fund, and the Good Shepherd Food Bank.

This year, because of poor ice conditions, about 1,000 people registered to participate, said Tom Noonan, the derby’s lead volunteer organizer. As of Friday evening, only about four people asked for refunds of their entry fee, which is $30 for an individual, he said.

Most participants are happy to help the charities, and all entrants are automatically eligible to take part in the statewide derby in two weeks, Noonan said.

This is the third year in 10 that Sebago Lake has had marginal ice for the derby. But the only other year the event was canceled was 2002.

A recent warm spell weakened the ice, and Saturday’s weather — sunny with a high of 49 degrees in Portland — made the situation even worse.

”We had a sudden change in ice conditions,” Noonan said. ”At 1 o’clock, we started seeing some rapid deterioration and so we called the derby off at 3 p.m.”

People fell through the ice in different parts of the lake, although Jordan Bay was especially hazardous, officials said.

Noonan said it’s not unusual for people or vehicles to fall in the water during the annual tournament when crossing pressure ridges that they should have avoided. In this case, however, the pressure ridges were becoming extremely dangerous and other areas also were becoming too thin, he said.

”If you’re going to go through the ice, you want to do it at the derby,” he said. ”(The incidents) are all witnessed. People are there in second. We have airboats. We have divers. We have helicopters.”

Noonan praised the state game wardens for helping make sure no one was hurt. At least eight wardens and senior officers were patrolling Sebago Lake on Saturday.

The agency knew first-hand about the potential problems after a veteran warden plunged through the ice on Sebago on Friday afternoon while patrolling off Raymond Beach. He was quickly helped out of the lake, but his ATV sank in about 35 feet of water.

Divers with the Cumberland County Sheriff’s department helped retrieve the ATV on Saturday. The vehicle did not leak any fuel or oil and will be put back into service soon, Turcotte said.

Along with canceling the derby, the warden service warned against anyone venturing onto Sebago’s ice and said other lakes could be equally dangerous because of the warm weather.

”Anyone who wants to go out onto ice, particularly in southern Maine, should think twice before risking their lives and possibly the lives of others,” Maj. Gregg Sanborn, deputy chief game warden, said in a written statement.

Noonan said volunteers were posting signs at access points to the lake to make sure anyone who arrives today will know the derby is cancelled and the ice is unsafe.

He said the derbies clearly will not raise as much money for charities as they did last year. But, he said, the statewide derby was established for winters like this one. ”The statewide derby was implemented as a safety valve,” he said.



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