Although there are pockets of open water, ice still covers the majority of Sidney’s Messalonskee Lake on April 18. Six generations of the Bacon family have been tracking the ice-out date of the nearby pond for nearly 100 years. Ice-out, according to Kevin Bacon is when the entire pond is navigable by boat. Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

For six generations, the men in the Bacon family have recorded the ice-out date for Messalonskee Lake on the barn wall of their farm. Today, Kevin and Shelley Bacon, the owners of Bacon Farm Maple Products, continue the 98-year-old tradition, walking a quarter mile to the boat landing each spring to determine the moment they judge the 8-mile-long lake is free of ice, and then writing the date on the barn wall with a Sharpie.

They write the dates on an area only 3 feet by 4 feet. But it’s a prominent section of this massive 138-year-old barn in Sidney, the only thing recorded on the wall, save for the dates of the tractor’s last oil change. The Bacons continue the practice out of respect for family tradition and because visitors to the farm want to know.

“Everyone knows about the ice-out wall,” Shelley Bacon said. “They always want to come and see what the date was.”  

As of this writing, the ice has not disappeared from 3,700-acre Messalonskee Lake, but on Sebago – at 29,000-acres the second-largest lake in Maine – the ice had melted in the big bay by April 4, according to Jordan’s Store, where the Cutting family has kept records of ice-out for more than 60 years.

Six generations of the Bacon family have  charted the ice-out date of nearby Messalonskee Pond on this barn wall. Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

Recording ice-out dates is a custom upheld by hundreds of people across Maine, and is typically considered to be when a lake’s center is free of ice. Ice-out dates have long inspired bets and raffles. But today the dates represent something altogether more serious than the length of the ice-fishing season. As the climate warms, ice-out dates have become an important way to assess the health of Maine’s lakes. Longer ice cover on lakes equals healthier lakes. 

“We know, or suspect strongly because of multiple studies around the country, that climate change is going to affect the duration of ice cover and that over time that is likely to have a profound influence on the health of our lakes,” said Scott Williams, executive director of the Auburn-based Lake Stewards of Maine.

Since 1971, Lake Stewards has recruited more than 1,200 volunteers to gather data on the clarity and water quality of more than 500 lakes in Maine. It is the longest-running citizen lake-monitoring program in the country. In the past 10 years, the organization has also asked some of its volunteers to collect ice-out data on 150 lakes – and more recently to collect ice-in data, or when a lake freezes over for the first time in the winter (and for good in the winter), as well.

Williams explained that when the lake is covered by ice and snow for long periods, light is not able to penetrate into the water, so algae have less opportunity to grow. However, when the sun can penetrate into the water column over an extended time – as it does during winters with little to no ice cover – it warms the water and stimulates the growth of algae, which, in turn, harm the water’s clarity and deplete its oxygen. Fish need oxygen; if there is not enough dissolved oxygen in the lake water, they die.

VALUABLE RECORDS

The Cutting family has been keeping records of ice-out on Sebago Lake ever since Carroll and Barbara Cutting opened their general store by the lake’s shore in 1957.

Every spring, the couple would carefully write down the date the ice was gone from the lake’s big bay, storing the record in their desk at Jordan’s Store. A few years ago, their sons, Jeff and Greg, took over the store. Now they record the ice-out date on the same weathered piece of paper. “My father kept the record simply because he cares about the lake,” Jeff Cutting said from the store, which looks across to the big bay.

Sixteen-year-old Nathan Bacon, his mother Shelley and father Kevin, sit near the barn wall on which six generations of the Bacon family, Nathan being the sixth, have charted the ice-out date of nearby Messalonskee Lake for almost 100 years. Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

The data has become important to the Portland Water District, since Sebago supplies water for some 200,000 residents of the Portland area. In 2013, water district scientists began to pay closer attention to how many days the lake was covered with ice each winter, said Brie Holme, a water resource specialist with the water district. They started collecting ice-out dates. Holme got data going back to 1807 from the U.S. Geological Survey, and she also began asking Jordan’s Store for its ice-out date each year.

That data shows a clear and troubling pattern. From 1962 to 1990, the lake froze every year, and the ice-out date occurred between mid-March and the first week of May. But from 1991 until this winter, there were 10 years in which the lake did not freeze completely, six of them in the last decade alone. 

“Sebago has some of the cleanest water in Maine and Maine has some of the cleanest lakes in the country,” Holme said. “But the lake is not invincible.”

Holme said because Sebago Lake’s 300,000-acre watershed is 84 percent forested and the lake is deep – it drops down 300 feet near its center – it has an advantage over smaller, shallower lakes where algae can more easily grab hold. Still, the water district is keeping a closer watch on changes in Sebago’s ecosystem.

Last spring, for the first time, the water district put a buoy in the intake area to collect data from the lake every 15 minutes from May to November. Powered by solar panels and equipped with a variety of computerized sensors, the buoy amasses a detailed account of the lake’s temperature, dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll – a measure of algae in the lake. Previously, the district gathered this data just once a month.

MESSED-UP ECOSYSTEM

Linda Bacon – a cousin of the Bacons who own the Sidney farm – has a keen appreciation for the years of ice-out data her family has compiled, because she is the head of the division of environmental assessment in Maine’s Bureau of Water Quality.

About 25 years ago, Linda Bacon took the historical records for ice-out on Messalonskee Lake, which she lives near, and computed the average ice-out for the past 100 years. She calculated that the long-term average for ice-out was April 24. However, in recent years she said the ice-out date on the lake consistently has been two to four weeks earlier. This year it will be later, but Bacon said it’s the overall trend that is significant.

“I am concerned,” Bacon said. “When you get an incredibly earlier ice-out date, the ecosystem gets messed up. When you throw a lake out of balance, there are always dangers of algae bloom.”

Further north, a Lake Stewards volunteer outside Skowhegan is also worried about the decreasing periods of ice cover. Will Reid, a retired state aquatic and fisheries biologist, has been keeping records on 1,400-acre Wesserunsett Lake in Madison since the 1970s, a tradition his father-in-law started in the 1950s. Since the 1980s, Reid also has kept ice-in data. Even 25 years ago, he said, the trends in diminishing ice cover were hard to miss.

“Ice-in is an important factor in regard to water quality and climate change. There’s a relationship there,” Reid said. “People are just realizing they should keep the ice-in date. The change in ice cover is rendering a longer season of open water, so there will be more opportunity for algae growth, and that (data) could make a difference.”

Bacon said Lake Auburn – which provides the public water supply to Lewiston and Auburn – offers an alarming example of the potential impact of earlier ice-outs. In 2012, the ice melted by March 23. That spring and summer, the lake temperature grew warmer than usual, algae bloomed, and oxygen in the lake diminished. By September, lake trout were dying and washing up on the shore.

The Auburn Water District spent more than $400,000 to study the problem, and last September, after another unusually hot summer, it treated the lake with copper sulfate to kill the algae present in Lake Auburn.

“That lake is incredibly clear most of the time,” Bacon said. “You can see down about 30 feet. But not that year, in 2012.”