Shell Ice

This post is part of a series contributed by DRA Trustee Barnaby Porter. Read the previous post here.


new ice on the Damariscotta River

The hoarse whisper of things to come . . .

I was eating breakfast. Out the kitchen window, stillness prevailed in the clear dawn except for the titmice and chickadees at the feeder. The river was placid, a coasting sheet of glass reflecting the far shore in the golden glow of first light. The tide had turned in the last hour, the boat on its mooring now headed upriver. The thermometer read eighteen degrees. Three buffleheads beat around the point and wheeled into the cove.

As I munched my toast, my eye caught some movement out there. The big red buoy on our mooring suddenly bobbed and jerked at the limit of its chain, and I quickly saw the reason as a thin glaze on the water’s surface descended on the tide. And I knew what that meant, that the thin edge of winter was now upon us, and I would soon have to haul the boat out for the season.

I took my coffee cup and stepped out on the stoop to listen, to listen for a sound I had not heard for some months, that of new shell ice knifing and chafing its way down the shore, slicing at everything in its path – a seemingly fragile force whose keen edge will soon sever all ties with warm weather and will lock the river up in winter.

My son, Elijah, fifteen years old and all woozled from sleep, stepped out to join me in his bare feet. “What’re you doing, Dad?”

“Listen,” I said. “Just listen.”

And we did just that, for several long minutes. Our boat’s fiberglass hull hollowed an echo in the quiet as the thin ice chewed at its waterline, and glassy, wet shells of crystal swished and ground around the ledges as sheet after sheet fractured and slid along with the tide. Elijah didn’t say much, but he stood a long time in those bare feet, and I knew that this unexpected dimension of sound attending the phenomenon of shell ice was making an impression on him.

In my mind, shell ice will always be associated with duck hunting. A long time ago, on an early December morning, I sat on a point with my old cousin, Nape. He and I were regular hunting companions. It was cold and grey, and we sat brooding over a mess of black duck decoys from the driftwood and dried grass cover of our crude blind, freezing our asses off.

Nape was a tall thin man. He never wore gloves or mittens, and to this day I can see those long, bony fingers fumbling with red shot shells and the frozen, blued steel of his shotgun, and I can hear him grumbling about the madness of hunting ducks, leaving a wife and a warm bed to wade about in the freezing pre-dawn to set out a bunch of decoys and then to sit hours on a frozen rock in the vague hope that we had done something right and wouldn’t get skunked. He loved duck hunting.

Anyhow, as we sat there, a great expanse of pure shell ice floated along our shore. We both watched in silence as this harbinger of seasonal change drifted into our consciousness. The edge of the ice then began to shred against the rocks at our feet, its fragile icy lens slicing at everything in its path. “Goddam shell ice,” said Nape. “It’s going to cut those decoy lines – I know it.”

Never having seen that happen in my own lesser experience, I sincerely doubted him and said so. “It’s just shell ice. It won’t do anything.”

“I’m telling you,” he said. “Watch.”

We watched . . . and listened. Soon the ice began to chuck away at the decoys. They yanked and bobbed on their green lines. I hoped the lead anchors would hold the bottom. The ice cut with a steady rhythm against the cork bodies. Some began to drag anchor. Then they all began to drag, or so it seemed. “See what I mean,” said Nape. “I knew it!’ And sure enough, it was soon apparent that several of the dozen decoys had been cut free and were drifting away with the ice. “Shell ice. It’ll do it every time.”

I scrambled for our canoe and paddled after them. Each decoy had just a few inches of frayed nylon string dangling from it. Not only did the sound of the canoe in the ice send every duck in the bay flying, we had to wait another couple of hours for the tide to drop so we could find the decoy anchors.

I’ve come to expect, on some early December morning, this signal moment brought on by the keen edge of the season’s critical few degrees either side of freezing, when the first shell ice has formed overnight. It can make an impression on a young man. Locked in those fragile crystals is the hoarse whisper of things to come.

black duck swimming through thin ice


Barnaby PorterArtist and author Barnaby Porter has had a varied career in marine research, aquaculture, and woodworking, among others. Most recently he partnered with his wife Susan as co-owners of the Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in downtown Damariscotta. Barnaby currently serves on DRA’s Board of Trustees. For more about Barnaby, click here.

Photo of Damariscotta River courtesy of Barnaby Porter. Black duck photo courtesy of USFWS.