Sunday, January 19, 2014

Breaking Up an Ice Jam

   On the same day as our first paddle, at high tide (10:42AM) we headed to the Kenduskeag Stream in Bangor to view the ice jam.   The jam had been there for a couple days, created when rain and warming temperatures broke up ice upstream and sent it coursing to the mouth.  But where the Kenduskeag join the Penobscot, the Penobscot was still frozen solid, so the ice backed up, filling the canals with a jagged landscape.  At high tide the combination of ice and incoming water sometimes overflowed the banks, flooding parking lots.

  We wandered along the half mile jam, chatting with other voyeurs and snapping photos.  There was no flooding with this tide.

  Mid afternoon, (2PM-ish) two ice-breakers passed by our house; the Bridle and Tackle.    The Bridle has been clearing the river fairly regularly.  The last day I noted a pass-by was January 5, but I think it’s come since.  I’m not sure it goes up as far as the Bangor waterfront, but even if it has, with the cold temperatures, the river has frozen over again quickly. 
  Shortly after the icebreakers went up river, the Penobscot was once again filled with broken ice.  All afternoon chunks streamed by.
  A blurb on the five o’clock news mentioned the coast guard vessels were clearing a path to Bangor, which would allow the ice jam to flow free.  The anchor cut to a very dark Bangor waterfront, where a reporter was waiting for the ice breakers to come by.  The reporter had yet to see or hear them.  So after dinner we headed out by car to find where the ice breakers were.  We spotted the two vessels just south of Hamlin Marina/Hampden boat launch, working the river.  One at a time each breaker backed up, then moved steadily forward to strike solid ice.  On average each attack got the vessel forward one boat length (65 feet).  The second boat would back and drive forward slightly to the side, widening the path. 

  It was a beautiful night to be out; just at freezing on a still night.  Orion kept watch overhead, the January full moon slowly rose over Brewer, and the two ships kept charging at the ice.  
   We watched for 30-40 minutes.  The two breakers had made it about an eighth of a mile closer to Bangor by the time we left at 7 PM.  Not an eighth of a mile of cleared river, but an eighth mile of a narrow center path.  There was still over three miles of river to be cleared to reach the mouth of the Kenduskeag.  We heard later the two boats over nighted at Hamlin Marina

  Saturday we went to check on progress and found the boats working by the I-395 bridge.  We joined ice breaker enthusiasts on both sides of the river in watching the slow and steady progress.  

  Cars gathered at the waterfront, cameras were pointed, families gathered to watch boats battle ice.  It took two hours for the boats to go the three quarters of a mile from the bridge to the waterfront.

An hour and a half after the previous shot
  On shore the was a celebratory feel in the air, as we watched the Coast Guard wrest the Penobscot from winter's grip.
The Bridle, 65 feet long

  The impressiveness of this feat is best seen in a short video.   Video of the two ice breakers in action
   Notice the distance the icebreaker gets, watch how it tilts as it drives itself on top of the ice and imagine doing that hour after hour, mile after mile. 
    They did and by evening, the waterway was free...for awhile anyway.

  The ice jam is still in the Kenduskeag Stream.  There is a huge solid sheet of ice between the railroad bridge and Washington Street which needs to break up before the ice jam can flow through.  Perhaps that will happen next tide cycle.  Fortunately, the highest tides of the month passed without flooding.  And Bangor residents can see the Coast Guard did all it could to clear a path for that ice when it breaks.

  An earlier ice breaker related post:  On Board the Tackle 


  1. Great post and amazing video. The hulls on those boats must be incredibly tough. I wouldn't want to be in a kayak when the Kenduskeag Stream ice jam lets go.

  2. Great post. I saw this in the newspaper, but you really went indepth.

  3. Thanks guys, I am always impressed when I see the cutters go by, and this was an awesome opportunity to see them up close. As a bonus I got to meet many other Coast Guard admirers.
    The ice jam was still there at noon Sunday, but the big end sheet was cracked and breaking up. No big back up of water is trapped upstream yet, and if the break up works the water back up won't become a problem.

  4. Great story. Spectacular and frightening at the same time. What a crazy winter. Hope that ice jam doesn't cause bigger problems as winter dishes out more challenges. Cheers from Canada.