Some open water is visible Thursday at Chops Point in Woolwich in a view from a Coast Guard airplane. The agency’s ice-breaking boats will head up the river next week. Photo courtesy of Steve Brown and Brian Welsh, USCG Air Auxiliary District 1

Sunday marks the end of the smelt season at Baker Brothers Smelt Camp in Pittston – just three days before the U.S. Coast Guard is expected to start its second ice-breaking mission on the Kennebec River this year.

But camp owner Richard Potter said Friday he’s not sure whether the cutters will be able to make much headway.

“We still have 32 inches down here,” Potter said. Out in the channel of the river, he said, the ice is about 22 inches thick.

The USCGC Bridle breaks ice Jan. 24 on the Kennebec River just south of Chops Point in Woolwich. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

With the ice breakers coming up the river again, Potter said he doubts the river will refreeze, and he’ll be pulling his 30 shacks from the river, as he did in mid-January, when the ice jam moved through, and at the end of January, when the ice breakers made their first trip up the river. This time, he’ll be storing the shacks for the season, which is ending a few weeks earlier than usual.

“We probably could have stayed out till the 5th or the 10th (of March), but it’s not worth taking the chance,” he said.

Even as Potter is making plans to end his season, the Coast Guard coordinated with federal, state and local agencies Friday via conference call to work out the logistics of its plan to break the ice next week on the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers.

The USCGC Shackle, deployed for assessment on the river, broke some ice on Thursday. The crew reported Friday that south of Chops Point in Woolwich the water was clearing well.

The tug progressed as far as Abagadasset Point in Bowdoinham before it lost the tide and had to turn back, but the crew noted signs that the river ice is starting to degrade and rot, and slabs of ice are starting to break free and flow downriver. They also reported stretches of open water.

That’s a good sign, Kennebec County Emergency Management Agency Director Sean Goodwin said Friday morning. Before sending the 140-foot ice breaker north of Richmond, the Coast Guard has asked the U.S. Geological Survey to make ice measurements just north of the Maine Kennebec Bridge, which connects Richmond and Dresden, and just south of Gardiner. The ice on that stretch of the river has been undisturbed this winter. That will help determine how long the ice-breaking operation might take.

People walk across a bridge and onto the frozen Kennebec River on Dec. 30 at Baker Brothers Smelt Camps in Pittston. Baker’s will put its camps away Sunday, three days before an expected arrival of Coast Guard icebreakers. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

An aerial survey by the Coast Guard shows where its larger ice-breaking ship reached in January before the operation was suspended. But north of Richmond the ice appears more solid.

Goodwin said Friday he plans to visit Worthing’s Smelt Camp in Randolph, as well as Baker’s, to let them know about the pending ice-breaking operation so they can pull in their shacks. He said he also plans to contact Foggy Bottom, the campground and marina in Farmingdale. Though it is closed and has nothing in the water now, it has equipment near the riverbank, he said.

At Baker’s in Pittston, Potter said winters seem to run in cycles. In 2008, they had to pull the shacks off the ice a couple of times. Last year was great for smelt fishing, but the year before was the first time in 40 years they didn’t put out the camps.

“It’s quite a bit of work to pull the camps,” he said. “It takes six or eight or 10 people to do it.”

Record-breaking warm weather Wednesday brought melting of ice and snow, but no new concerns about flooding in the Kennebec River.

Officials in communities along the river have been monitoring an ice jam between Hallowell and Farmingdale that formed about six weeks ago, when a brief warm-up and heavy rainfall loosened the river ice and sent chunks and slabs of it downstream, where it’s been lodged ever since.

The destructive jam flooded a stretch of downtown Hallowell.

Jessica Lowell can be contacted at 621-5632 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: JLowellKJ