Lesson learned

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You know, it’s kind of funny this winter that the one thing we don’t have much of on water is spread thick where we don’t need it – on land.

On Thursday, I was going out on the Androscoggin River in Bethel for some drift boat fishing for trout with Maine Guide Rocky Freda of Bethel and a small armada. All of us were going to celebrate the entire river’s new year-round fishing season.

The trip was supposed to be held New Year’s Day – the day the designation went into effect. But, you guessed it, we had an ice storm that day that postponed it to Thursday. Plus, an ice jam clogged the downstream route.

Temperatures were predicted to be balmy this week for January, so I was looking forward to Thursday’s paddle upstream. But, guess what? It was canceled again due to ice.

Land leading to the river was so slippery that Freda feared if he tried to back his boat trailer down to water’s edge, truck, trailer and boat would slide into the Androscoggin.

So, trying hard not to think about ice, I’m driving into work Thursday and fall into a line of traffic bound for Route 108 in Rumford. Ahead of me is a tractor-trailer with a license plate, the last three digits of which were “1ce.” On first glance, I read “ice” and laughed.

I wasn’t laughing Monday, though, when I read in the Sun Journal that, despite stories I did earlier warning people about the lack of ice and thin ice dangers, that a Connecticut man fell through ice Sunday in Rangeley Lake and drowned.

Then I saw that he was on Nordic skis when it happened. Bang! A flashback struck.

Several years ago, I was gliding on cross country skis along Seven Mile Stream in East Dixfield, about a hundred yards from my grandparents’ house beside Route 17.

Captivated by winter’s beauty the day after an ice storm, I was photographing it, mindful of the ice-covered water. But, I felt safe because of what I call the snowshoe-ski effect, wherein one doesn’t sink into snow up to one’s neck because of the “pontoons” on one’s feet.

I soon learned the hard way that that notion is but an illusion of security.

One second I was standing upright snapping a picture, ski poles planted beside me, the next second, I was underwater. It happened that quick. I wasn’t even near the main stream.

The last thing I saw while falling into a hidden tributary pool was a muskrat lodge.

After that, it became a fight for survival. There was no, “Terry! You idiot!” Unable to talk because a thousand daggers of icy water suddenly had my core body temperature in a death grip, the only thing in my head was, “Must get out.”

I hit bottom in about 6 feet of water and adrenaline shot me to the surface like a breaching submarine. Reaching out I clawed desperately for a handhold that wasn’t there in my panic. I think I went under again, bobbed yo-yo like up for another go, and latched onto brush that held fast.

Then I squirmed for all I was worth, hoping the ice didn’t break under me, while I dog paddled my way across the ice surface. I knew not to stand up until I was far enough away.

I remember laying there, shivering and coughing up water. After a few moments, realization sunk in. I was still in danger of freezing to death in the below zero temperatures that day.

By the time I could stand and walk, though, my clothes had frozen stiff. I took the skis off and used them as walking sticks, staggering up to Route 17. By then I was crawling and worried constantly that I’d become roadkill while snaking across the normally busy road, shattered into a thousand Terry cubes.

Ever since that mishap, I’ve given brooks a wide berth in winter, and I’m still very leery about venturing out onto pond ice adorned with fishing shacks. Respect for Mother Nature is a lesson learned if you’re lucky enough to live to remember it.

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