During the ice storm of 1998, I was 26 and on a 10-day Outward Bound snowshoeing and dog-sledding trek in the western mountains of Maine. Needless to say, we had no idea what was going on with the rest of the state, without cellphones or even a radio to contact the base. It had a big effect on our trip, though.

When it first started raining, we figured it wouldn’t last long or would shortly turn to snow. We weren’t too worried about it. We trekked all day and stopped to set up camp fairly late in the evening. We built our two shelters, which consisted of a tarp strung between trees, with snow walls that we built under the lower edges of the tarps so that any rain would run outside of the snow walls. We cooked dinner, debriefed the day and, totally exhausted, started to get ready for bed.

Martha Bracy mid-trek in Jan. 1998. Courtesy photo

At that point, our instructor, Tracy, noticed that one of the trees we had tied one of the tarps to was leaning a little more than it had been a couple of hours earlier. Tracy made us move the shelter. We argued with her, told her that it looked fine – we were so exhausted. Tracy insisted, so we moved the shelter and finally got to sleep. Sure enough, in the middle of the night the tree that had been leaning became so covered in ice (as was everything else) that it fell right onto the spot where our shelter was. It would have crushed the half a dozen of us.

The other thing that happened that night was that because we didn’t account for the weight of ice building up on our tarps, one of the tarp’s edges dropped inside of the snow wall and two of our companions woke up in 4 inches of water. We all had to get up and rebuild the shelter, and the two wet sleepers had to climb into zipped-together sleeping bags with other people so that there were two bags with three people in each. What a long night!

The next day, I went to get my gear and discovered that my pack was encased in a boilerplate of ice. We all found ourselves kicking our packs and beating them with sticks in order to break the ice and get them open, not knowing that we would have to repeat this process for the next couple of mornings. We decided to stay put that day and try to dry out the wet sleeping bags over the fire with the expectation we’d have a dry day to recover and then continue. Well, all day we tried to dry those bags, only to have any water that evaporated out of one side of the bag replaced by rainwater coming down. Those six people went to bed again that night snuggled up three to a bag.

After the second night of rain, we decided to move on with our trek. The trail that two days before had been quite wide and pleasant was now nearly impassable due to all of the smaller trees, birches and saplings bending down to the ground under the weight of the ice. It took us hours to travel what was probably only a couple of miles due to having to crawl through much of it. We eventually got to a section of trail with more mature trees and found the going a little easier.

In my memory, we had about three days of freezing rain. All we knew was that we were having some really bad weather; we had no idea what was going on in the rest of the region. We found out later that the trip leaders nearly decided to intercept us on the trail and bring us back to base; in some ways, we had it easier in the wilderness – we were already set up for no power or heat. They did send out some dry gear. We were all shocked to get back to “civilization” to find it looking like a war zone.

I am so grateful for my experience during the ice storm, which taught me that it’s possible to take care of myself in some pretty tough situations. I’m also grateful to my trip leader, Tracy, for her keen eye and solid leadership when the rest of us were so exhausted and just wanted to turn in.

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