Ice Storm of 1998 , twenty year anniversary

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peakbagger

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20 years ago the whites and much of Maine, NH, VT and southern Quebec were in the first day of a three day ice storm now memorialized as the Ice Storm of 1998. Many of the local media stations have had retrospectives of the anniversary mostly covering the major and extended destruction of the electric distribution system. What I haven’t seen is much on the impact to the woods and the trail network which most likely was the biggest disturbance since the Hurricane of 1938 and the subsequent fires in the 1940s.

The initial ice storm was drizzle, the strange part was the ground was cold so the drizzle didn’t drip off the trees, it just built up as ice. This drizzle lasted for three days and not far into the first day, the power lines started to fail due to ice loading or trees loaded with ice falling across them. The town of Randolph near me was particularly hit hard as the power system appears to have gone in as an afterthought and the utilities tended to do minimal maintenance as the summer residents objected to it. Early on in the event the power lines went down on most of the side roads and the utility just shut off the power. The freezing conditions varied in elevation but locally it was most significant starting around 1100 feet and working up to 2500 feet, although the ice built up lower in the Randolph valley. After the first three days, the sun came out and the extent of the damage was quite visible. Every surface had 1 to 2 inches of ice and the woods were frozen. The sound of breaking branches was near continuous and as things warmed up there would be large ice falls raining ice and broken branches down into the woods. It was dangerous to walk in the woods as at any moment tons of ice could come raining down. Even if someone wanted to walk in the woods it was littered with broken crowns. The odd part was the woods were quite pretty during the day time as the ice in the trees reflected the sunlight.

Softwoods tended to be tall frozen pillars, the branches bent down to near vertical and then froze in place. White birches tended to bend over with the crowns touching the ground and being frozen into it. The hardest hit were mature hardwood stands with a well-developed canopy. In many areas like the Valley Way and the RMC trails on the south slope of Mt Crescent, the woods were littered several feet deep with what formerly was the crowns of the most mature trees, many trees still had large branches partially snapped hanging from trees. Many of the most mature hardwoods that had most likely been growing since the 1800s were just a 2 to 3 foot diameter stem sticking up 30 to 50 feet with no branches. White birches survived but never went vertical again, I see many birches of the era leaned over horizontally with branches resembling small trees growing vertically upward.

It took about a week for the woods to melt out to the point where attempts could be made to get in the woods to assess the conditions. There was no organized efforts initially, The USFS and AMC had few field crews in January and they were quite busy trying to protect their properties. RMC did have a caretaker up at Gray Knob and by default he (or she) had to assess the trails as that was the only way down off the mountain. The primary forum for the whites was VFTT, the FS claimed that they would set up an information page but it never was set up and VFTT became the default site to make trail reports in the net. The initial reports were by individuals and were grim with trails totally impassable until folks got up above 2500 feet. Most of the initial assessment and trail clearing were by individuals with hand tools. RMC and other local trail clubs started organizing volunteer groups to start opening up trails. Initially a lot of questions weren’t asked about the qualifications of volunteers. I went out one day with my chainsaw gear and cleared trees without certification for the entire day. I luckily had a chainsaw helmet and Kevlar chaps as one of my swampers was Mike Dickerman and I ended up with my photo in full gear on regional newspapers. Soon money and resources started to get ramped up and the pros moved in.

In Randolph, club members from all over started sending money to the club even before the stated asking for it. They initially concentrated on the south side of RT 2 on the main routes to the summits but soon moved across RT2 to tackle the south slope of the Crescent range with its dense network of trails. This area had been the core of the Randolph summer hiking colony since the late 1800’s and the woods were mostly mature maple stands intermixed with ancient yellow birches ,occasionally large beeches and a few big cherry trees mixed in. There were some softwood stands and occasion pockets of old Hemlocks but they were in the minority. The trails were “toast”. Large crowns had crashed down and in many cases had bent over smaller less mature but more limber smaller trees. In many spots this was 10 feet deep. By the time this effort got going RMC started assigning more experience trained sawyers and the volunteers now became swampers. I had a Swedish brush ax and it was great for swamping the small stuff. The sawyers had it tough as cutting one tree might start a chain reaction where trapped trees would spring up. We stayed back while they cut the big stuff and then we cut it up into smaller pieces with whatever tools we brought and then had to stuff the wood butt end first completely in the woods so that it would look natural in the future. In some cases we ran out of room in the woods to stuff branches and would have to haul it back up the trail in a more open spot. The typical crew was 8 to 10 people, two sawyers and the rest swampers. Even working steadily, opening 2 or 3 miles in a typical day was regarded as a successful day. I put in three weekends and by then the trails were mostly open. Depending on the folks doing the clearing, a lot of the really big trees were left lying across the trail with branches trimmed back to allow getting over them. Eventually special funding came through and the FS, AMC and RMC as well as other groups went in and cut the big stuff.

The major effects continued to be visible for the next few years. Hiking in the summer of 98 was odd, what once were shady woods walks turned into sunny hikes with lots of unusual views appearing. Driving down forest service roads was interesting. The east side of Hurricane Mountain road was particularly striking. The entire woods were just mature hardwood stems with zero canopy left. All over the trail network were many hanging branches and they would continue to fall for a couple of years. Spring trail cleanups were a lot more extensive. I carried a hand saw and usually would end up cutting several large tree branches fallen across the trail on every hike. About a year later the undergrowth that had been held in check due to the mature canopy exploded. Hobblebush and raspberries were choking out less used trails. Many of the best blazes cut into the bark were on the older trees and many were dead or dying. The FS no longer allowed cutting bark for blazes and had switched to far less durable latex paint so the amount and quality of blazing took a significant step downwards.

Twenty years later, I still have a couple of trees in my yard with some broken crown parts still hanging. I either cut or pruned the remaining trees I could reach with a pruning pole and many re-established a crown. In Randolph the woods are growing back but there are still many ghost trees, large diameter rotting stems hinting of what once was there. Unfortunately beech being a secondary tree in the forest tends to be quite resilient and will readily sprout from roots or stump, in many spots the beech have taken over the woods and beech blight quickly moved in leading to a lot of blighted misshapen beech stands. In other spots smaller maples recovered and have taken back the canopy but especially in the winter the damage in the woods is still evident. The hidden cost is that the trees that survived tend to have rot and defects making a big dent in the potential future income for landowners. Many landowners clear cut their land quickly after the event but many lost interest in spending the time to make sure it regenerated correctly leaving low grade stands. Hancock Timber (owned by the John Hancock Insurance Company) had bought much of the remaining Brown Company holdings in the north country of NH a few years prior to the Ice storm. Despite their claims that they were going to own and manage it forever, they put the entire block on sale to the highest bidder. The citizens in Randolph created the Randolph Town forest and with state and local help they bought the land in their town and sold the Pond of Safety land within the national forest declaration boundary to the forest service that claimed that they would be building a USFS campground at the Pond. Much of the rest of the land was sold to what would become the infamous Dillon logging company that high graded what they could with no respect of any logging conservation protections. They have pretty well cut what they own and with a little green mail to the government to sell their frontage on the AT and a check from the state of NH to buy the clearcut and trashed 7000 acre block of land in Jericho for an ATV park they have made a bundle. Their final act which will happen any year now is to sell their remaining land in the Success Area.

I expect much of the current hiking public who weren’t around for the event don’t even know what happened but for those who lived it I don’t think they ever will forget it.
 
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Great job reflecting on that, peakbagger!

I hiked Pierce and Eisenhower on January 11, 2008. It seemed that everything above a certain elevation was encased in ice still. The forest lost many birch tree tops in that storm. I think you can still see the evidence of that in certain areas.
 
26168592_1678796332180249_3826235819308764496_n.png


From the National Weather Service, Gray, ME Facebook page.

Tim
 
That was quite a frightening experience and the constant crackling of the trees was quite unnerving. Alot of the trees that suffered damage around our property appear to be breaking off now and making quite a mess in the woods.
 
It was as if a giant had walked through the woods with a massive weed whacker.
 
I remember the ice storm. I recall reading about massive damage to XC ski trails at Windblown ski Area in New Ipswich in southern NH. It occurred to me to drive out there from Waltham with a bow saw thinking to help begin clearing trails. I recall seeing fleets of bucket trucks in convenience store parking lots on way there. The proprietor thanked me for coming, but he advised me the damage was in whole different league. He suggested I ski out on certain trail to see what he was talking about. I skied out to check out some of the trails and observed wholesale destruction of full-size hardwood trees broken off high low and all heights in between. Only highly skilled chainsaw operators would be able to deal with this stuff. Preferably with heavy mechanized equipment.

He had no idea how or when they would ever get the trails cleared sufficiently to re-open. He did say I could help with one small task. He'd built up a big big big pile of slash. We poured kerosene on the pile and lit it. It was green wood so would need someone to tend it until it caught. I managed to get it going good by dark at which point it was a mighty bonfire. I went for ski on some less damaged trails and got lost in snow squall 1/2" from the bonfire. I had head lamp, but no compass. Falling snow made it hard to tell what direction to go at first but soon saw the glow from my fire. When I got home I was surprised to find my polypro shirt looking like Swiss cheese from embers floating in air from the bonfire.
 
I remember the ice storm. I recall reading about massive damage to XC ski trails at Windblown ski Area in New Ipswich in southern NH. It occurred to me to drive out there from Waltham with a bow saw thinking to help begin clearing trails. I recall seeing fleets of bucket trucks in convenience store parking lots on way there. The proprietor thanked me for coming, but he advised me the damage was in whole different league. He suggested I ski out on certain trail to see what he was talking about. I skied out to check out some of the trails and observed wholesale destruction of full-size hardwood trees broken off high low and all heights in between. Only highly skilled chainsaw operators would be able to deal with this stuff. Preferably with heavy mechanized equipment.

He had no idea how or when they would ever get the trails cleared sufficiently to re-open. He did say I could help with one small task. He'd built up a big big big pile of slash. We poured kerosene on the pile and lit it. It was green wood so would need someone to tend it until it caught. I managed to get it going good by dark at which point it was a mighty bonfire. I went for ski on some less damaged trails and got lost in snow squall 1/2" from the bonfire. I had head lamp, but no compass. Falling snow made it hard to tell what direction to go at first but soon saw the glow from my fire. When I got home I was surprised to find my polypro shirt looking like Swiss cheese from embers floating in air from the bonfire.

Are you sure this is the same ice storm. I know Windblown got hit very hard with the ice storm of 2008. I thought the 98 storm was more north. I remember cycling up through Bear Notch Rd the summer of 99 and the tops of all the trees were gone.
 
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Are you sure this is the same ice storm. I know Windblown got hit very hard with the ice storm of 2009. I thought the 98 storm was more north. I remember cycling up through Bear Notch Rd the summer of 2010 and the tops of all the trees were gone.

You may have a point there. I distinctly recall going to Windblown and massive ice storm damage and major power outages lasting long time, but 1998 didn't quite make sense to me. but 2009? I'll have to check my records such as they are.

I checked Wikipedia and there was ice storm was in Dec 11 2008. 800,000 homes lost power. That one was no party either.
 
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I was in the MeARNG during the ice storm. We we're working with CMP out of Bridgton to cut trees lying over miles of downed powerlines. The first few days after the storm, they were completely overwhelmed and had no idea where to start. Mass confusion reigned until they finally got their heads out of their posterior. Ice on top of the snow was inches thick. We would touch a chainsaw to the back of a birch with the top buried in the snow and it would quickly snap and kick back. After CMP ran out of transformers and poles, we were sent up to Columbia Falls to help pick up the miles of transmission lines that fell down. We drove dump trucks over the blueberry fields, on top of the snow and ice. Cut up the poles and cables, loaded the wood up and took them to the local dump. Al Gore wandered over and picked up a powerline lying in the snow and one of my squad quipped "no line is safe to touch, evah!" We drove back and one by one, my section of five dump trucks broke down until we got to the Augusta armory with four drivers crammed into the cab of my truck. Who knew that diesel fueled gelled if it's not conditioned? Lol.

I was President of the Turner Ridge riders snowmobile club at the time. The snowmobile trails were completely closed down. We spent weeks cutting g and bulldozing the main trails just to open them up again. We claimed all those volunteer hours and was reimbursed enough grant money to buy a real groomer. Financially, the ice storm was the best thing to happen to the club. I no longer snowmobile, although my brother is still active in the club.

For years afterwards, areas we used to hunt were impassable because of all the downed hardwoods. It took awhile for the trees to rot down. Now, I no longer hunt.

I left my pregnant wife alone at my house to keep the fires going. I chopped a hole in the brook running next to.my house to get water to flush the toilets. My brother went over every morning to get the fire going and bring her drinking water. When I finally got home, she had moved to her mother's because she couldn't stand to be alone any more. I no longer have that house, or wife.

A lot has happened since then.
 
I was running a project down at the papermill in Gorham. The river valley was below the ice so things were somewhat normal. Every motel in town was full up with contractors and Labonville's sold every piece of cutting gear and warm clothing they had in stock and could get quickly. I was using a contractor out of western Maine which also was hit hard. One morning we had a safety meeting and I asked to see a show of hands on who had power at home. We had about 20 people and only one person had utility power. Many of the contractors had gas drive welders on their trucks that also work as generators, several of them would get home from work and then drive around plugging peoples homes in for few hours while they napped in the truck. They would do this all night and then head into work the next day.

I was fortunate I only lost power a couple of extended times, the longest stretch was 20 hours. I live in a newer neighborhood where most of the homeowners had voluntarily run power services underground. It had been logged prior to the development going in so the trees were not mature enough to hit the power lines if they fell down. The utility also had trimmed back the brush the prior summer so we only lost power when the main lines on US RT2 were out of service and they were treated as a priority by the utility. One of my coworkers had a streetlight on US 2 out in front of his house but his house was on the other side of the switch off the main line, he was without power for 12 days but did have the streetlight up on the pole that worked fine. Many of the older rural neighborhoods in Randolph and Shelburne and other areas of NH have separate power line right or ways that run through the woods, sometimes quite a distance from any road, the utility only had one all terrain bucket truck so many of the right of ways were restored on foot. Some folks love the look of rural road without power lines when they are looking for homes.

The wood lot I purchased last year in Randolph was in the major tree damage zone. The prior owner worked for the state and was on various forestry committees. There was a lot of state and local special funding available to mitigate the damage to the woods in the short and long term. He got different grants and matches to do selective logging of the damagd trees along with getting a new survey and putting in a main haul road and some secondary seasonal roads. He also had some timberstand improvement done where specific trees are selected to be saved and then competing surrounding trees are removed. Its still coming back but in the long run the work he put in should really help the lot.
 
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20 years ago today was the first winter hike I ever did, the day after the ice storm of 98. I was a senior at UNH at the time, and a bunch of us, all runners at UNH, decided to go for a hike in the Arethusa Falls area. The only non-runner was a friend of a friend, a female who had been promised by several of her girlfriends that they'd all come along and it would be fun. All of the other women bailed... She showed up in jeans and sneakers, post-holed and slipped her way up and along the trail, and generally gritted it out, complaining considerably less than our All American hurdler...

Walking through the iced up, bent over birches was like hiking through one of those bead door curtains that all the hippies used to have. Just a constant clinking of icy beads as you walked. It was very pretty, but wow. You could see the woods were just devastated.

Interestingly, that hike started a tradition among this group of friends. Although we've all moved to various ends of the country (and now some of us have moved back), we get together every year around Christmas time for a reunion hike. We've all missed one year here and there for one reason or another (usually births), but just this one get together each year has kept us quite close. Hiking is good like that. They're the only guys from college I keep in touch with. Here is a photo from that first hike, in front of Arethusa falls I think:
IceStorm98.jpg
And here is the same group 20 years later, with a few additions and one notable subtraction:
98plus20.jpg
The lone female ended up marrying my brother (we're both in the '98 photo). In her words, she got a husband out of her first winter hike, it's certain to be downhill from there.
 
Might want to edit that post and add the appropriate emoticon to you observation ;)
 
That was a great write up. I remember hiking after the storm and the damage would have been hard to describe, (although you did a fantastic job), you had to actually see it. Ironically, shortly after the storm, I moved out West and didn't come back for year's.
 
I remember seeing a line of very large white pines between two fields on a ridge line somewhere in the New London N.H. area that were shattered down to about 30 feet from the ground. It looked like they had received artillery fire.
 
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