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Spring rite of passage: Icebreakers reopen river

Maine remains blanketed in snow, but on Monday there was a sure sign of spring's arrival: A pair of Coast Guard cutters chugged up the Kennebec River to break up the ice.
Spring Ice Breaking
The Coast Guard cutter Morro Bay sits trapped on the Kennebec River near Woolwich, Maine, on Monday. The ship tried twice to carve a passageway through a potential ice jam before getting trapped off-kilter in river ice up to 7 feet thick. Combined use of the engines and bubbler — and patience waiting for the ice to shift, however slightly — finally freed the cutter. Robert F. Bukaty / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Maine remains blanketed in snow, and tulips are weeks away from bursting from the ground.

But on Monday there was a sure sign of spring's arrival: A pair of Coast Guard cutters chugged up the Kennebec River to break up the ice.

As the 140-foot Morro Bay crashed through ice, a couple standing outside a log cabin at the river's edge held a sign: "Thanks."

"Another satisfied customer," said Chief Warrant Officer Jeff Chase, who has busted up ice for the Coast Guard from Alaska to Antarctica.

Breaking up ice on the 149-mile-long Kennebec River to minimize flooding is a rite of spring. During the winter, the frozen river is dotted with shacks used by ice fishermen.

Come spring, Coast Guard cutters begin clearing a path from Bath Iron Works north to Gardiner, about 16 miles. The job takes several days to complete.

It's more complicated than simply using the brute force of Morro Bay's 2,500-horsepower engines to smash through sheets of ice. The job combines physics, meteorology and knowledge of tides, said Lt. Doug Wyatt, the Morro Bay's commanding officer.

"You try to work with Mother Nature to succeed at this. If not, she wins," Wyatt said.

In the Northeast, the Coast Guard routinely breaks ice on the Thames and Connecticut rivers in Connecticut, the Merrimack in Massachusetts, the Hudson in New York and the Kennebec and the Penobscot in Maine, said Jack McLaughlin, the Coast Guard's waterways manager in Boston.

The goal is to keep the rivers open for commerce, he said. The other goal, along the Maine rivers in particular, is to break up ice that can cause jams, forcing the icy water to rise and flooding riverside homes and businesses.

On Monday, the Morro Bay, cruising at about 12 knots, began slicing through ice only a few inches thick in Bath.

Farther north, it shuddered as the reinforced hull crunched through ice several feet thick in a narrow passage known to local fishermen as The Chops.

Getting trapped by the ice, the skipper used a bubbler system that forces air between the hull and ice while reversing engines to break loose.

"Ice breaking, I think, is the most fun I've had in my career," said Wyatt as he surveyed the white expanse before him the ship's bridge.