When was the last time we saw ice in the harbor? It might have been the winter that Norton Point breached. There hasn’t been any real ice since then. Last year Caleb’s Pond and Cape Pogue Bay were frozen over for awhile. When the ice broke up, it flushed away on a single tide. The opening seems to be keeping the harbor from freezing over.
In the fall of 1974 I started driving the Chappy Ferry for Jerry Grant. I had graduated from Maine Maritime Academy that spring. Four winters on Penobscot Bay made me think that human beings should not live where water freezes. After all we are mostly water ourselves.
The saltwater surrounding the academy froze up solidly before Halloween. Once the snow fell, it stayed on the ground until Memorial Day. I remember boarding the training ship, State of Maine, on June 1 with snow flurries filling the air to the point that you couldn’t see the ship from the foot of the gangway.
So the Vineyard felt almost tropical after that. But Edgartown harbor did freeze up that winter. I remember it seemed to happen overnight. I was operating the ferry for the night trips and the school bus trip in the morning. The rest of the driving was shared by John Willoughby and Dick Hewitt. They each worked a three and a half-day week, stopping for lunch. John liked to say that he didn’t really care when his lunch hour began but that it had to be 60 minutes long. So if the traffic kept him there until quarter past noon, don’t expect him back until quarter past one.
Anyway, when I put the boat to bed one particularly still night, after shutting off the engine, I could hear the murmur of saltwater slush pushing past the wharf pilings. In the reflection of the Chappy Point street lamp, the water appeared to be covered with goose bumps flowing along steadily together.
The next morning the slush was no longer flowing. It had formed into a continuous translucent sheet. I figured that it couldn’t be very thick so I started slowly across to get the school bus. The ice ahead was just thick enough that it broke up into picnic table-sized pieces that piled up onto one another until finally the thickened mass would veer off, pushing its way under the thin undisturbed ice alongside. Astern lay a channel of open water.
Luckily that first trip was a fairly straight run right to the Chappy slip, because we would be stuck with that route for weeks to come as the ice thickened in the cold. When the tide ran hard, the ferry would be held firmly against the down-current side of the channel. This caused the antifouling bottom paint to rub off onto the ice, giving the open water a bright red outline.
As the ponds froze up, our ferry channel became the only open water for miles around. Ducks, geese, gulls and all sorts of waterfowl began showing up by the hundreds. They would paddle about in the water, climbing out onto the ice as the ferry approached, then plopping back in as it passed by. We had the chance to see many unusual birds up close.
After a while it became clear that they weren’t getting enough to eat. I bought a sack of cracked corn from Dick Steigelman’s Katama Farm and Feed and tossed it out onto the ice. There was a lot of quacking and jostling as the birds went after the corn. People gladly gave dollar donations toward the next purchase of feed. For a time the members of this flock of many species lived in close company peacefully.
Then the mean old black-backed Gulls started killing the ducks. Dick Hewitt was very upset by this and got permission from the game warden to shoot the black-backs. I don’t think that he ever fired a shot, though. Those gulls must have recognized his pickup truck because they would all be out of range by the time Dick got out on the dock with his shotgun.
Those frigid winters were real character builders. I’m glad that I experienced them, but I certainly don’t miss them.
If you didn’t see it, you probably still heard the great fireworks show at midnight on New Year’s Eve courtesy of the Harbor View Hotel. They were fired off from a very small barge moored about midway between the lighthouse and the boatyard. Captain Bob Gilkes noted that the Boston fireworks lasted no longer than ours. The city show may have been louder, wider and higher, but you just can’t beat the close-up right-over-your-head display that we were treated to. My favorite part actually is shortly after the finale when they fire off the ones that didn’t go off with the others. You have more time to appreciate them when they’re spread out a little.
It would be fine with me if they did the whole show one shot at a time waiting for one to burn up completely before sending up the next one. That’s how it was when they used to shoot off the Fourth of July fireworks right on the beach next to the ferry. Talk about right over your head! With a bright pink magnesium flare in hand the fireworks guy would gingerly approach the first launching tube, light the fuse with the flare and scamper away as the rocket came blasting out. Then he would sneak up on to the next tube, leaving just the right amount of time for spectators to cheer and for yachts to blow their horns before the next one exploded overhead. We were more a part of the show then.
Shooting off the fireworks from the beach had an additional benefit. With the sparks raining down on the dry beach grass, the Chappy Fire Department was guaranteed at least one chance every year to put out a brush fire.