It can be a real bummer when snow refuses to fall during Maine’s long, cold winter. And it’s even worse when we have the snow, then an unusually warm and rainy day washes it all away. But there’s a silver lining to most everything, I like to think, and in this particular case, when the snow is scarce, the ice skating conditions on ponds and lakes are usually fantastic.
Hermon Pond, a popular place for ice fishing just a hop and skip from Bangor, is also an excellent place to go ice skating when the conditions are right. A public boat launch and park called Jackson Beach lies at the west end of the pond with plenty of parking. Just skate among the ice shacks, keep an eye out for fishing holes and enjoy the 461-acre ice rink made for you by Mother Nature herself.
How to get there: A public boat launch on Hermon Pond is located at Jackson Beach at the end of Jackson Beach Road in Hermon, at the west end of the pond. To get there, take I-95 Exit 174 and head west (you’ll technically be going north) on Route 69 (Hampden Road) about 1 mile, then turn right onto Hinckley Hill Road. Drive 1.2 miles, then turn left onto Newburg Road. Drive about 0.8 miles and turn right onto Jackson Beach Road, which is marked with a large sign for Jackson Beach. Drive to the end of the road, following the signs to the boat launch and parking area.
Skill level: Beginner. Ice skating can be a bit of a challenge for people who’ve never tried it before, and falling down on ice can certainly hurt, so if you’re new to the sport, I advise wearing a helmet as well as thick snow pants or even knee pads and elbow pads.
Cost: Free, unless you need to purchase ice skates. You may also need to acquire winter clothing, a helmet and ice picks if you’re new to the sport.
Guidelines: The most important thing to consider when ice skating on ponds and lakes is whether or not the ice is safe. There’s no easy answer. You could drill a hole in the ice to see how thick it is, or you could ask local ice fishermen, who drill holes in the ice on a regular basis to drop fishing lines. The Maine Warden Service provides the following ice thickness guidelines, which are for new, clear, solid ice:
— If the ice is 2 inches thick or less, stay off it
— 4 inches may allow ice fishing or other activities on foot
— 5 inches often allows for snowmobile or ATV travel
— 8 inches to 12 inches of good ice will support most cars or small pickups
— 12 inches to 15 inches will likely hold a medium size truck
To increase your safety, skate with a companion or two, and choose a pond or lake that’s popular for ice fishing and other winter activities. Also, avoid boulders protruding from the ice because they absorb heat from the sun that can melt the ice surrounding them.
Ponds and small bodies of water tend to freeze faster than large lakes, and moving water and salt water take much longer to freeze, if it does at all. For that reason, it’s important to know the location of inlets and outlets on a body of water — those are the streams and brooks that feed into it or out of it. Detailed maps of Maine lakes and ponds are available online, courtesy of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
For added safety on frozen bodies of water, carry ice picks, simple devices (sold at outfitters and some convenience stores) that you can use to pull yourself back onto the ice if you fall through. There are several Youtube videos on using ice picks for self rescue. One video by Pike Pole Fishing Guide Service in Southern Wisconsin is particularly educational. The man jumps into the freezing water three times in the video to demonstrate the difference between using ice picks and having to struggle out without them.
Skating on natural bodies of water isn’t always smooth sailing. Wind can blow snow into tiny ridges that can catch your blades, and snowmobiles can create ruts in slush that then hardens into dangerous ripples. And ice fishing holes are the perfect size to snag a skate mid-glide. It’s key to keep your eyes on the ice in front of you to select the smoothest path.
My Experience: The snow sparkled in the sun as I skated out onto Hermon Pond on Jan. 17, my hiking backpack buckled around my waist so not to shift and throw me off balance. I’d skated plenty as a kid while ice fishing with my dad and sister. Every time a flag would go up, we’d race to the trap to reel up the fish, and when the fish weren’t biting, we’d play tag or make up figure skating routines. The memories flooded back to me as I navigated over bumpy ice near the landing.
It was warm in the sun, but not warm enough to melt what little snow there was into a sticky mess. The weather was truly ideal that day as I weaved around ice shacks and eventually drummed up the courage to approach two anglers. They greeted me and answered my queries about what they were catching — pickerel and trout — and what they were cooking over the wood stove in their ice shack — hot dogs and hamburgers. I then moseyed off, eager to skate farther out onto the pond.
The glare of the sun reflecting off the white, flat surface of the pond made my eyes water. I should have worn sunglasses, but it was too late for that. I continued west, away from the landing, and chatted with three other ice fishermen before heading to a quieter area to set down my backpack and simply skate.
Beyond the clusters of shacks, a smooth white blanket stretched out before me, unmarked aside from occasional trail of animal tracks. I wish I knew my tracks better, but they appeared to me to be from a cat or dog, maybe a fox. In my imagination, I like to think of a bobcat crossing over the pond in the dark of night.
Free of my backpack, I worked on my turns and tried again and again to skate backwards, something I’ve yet to master. I nearly fell over a few times, but after some flailing, I regained my footing. It wasn’t until I’d skated all the way back to the landing that I tripped over a hump of ice and fell. Later I found a bruise on my forearm, a little reminder of an enjoyable day on the ice.