Winnipesaukee breaks the ice record

By Stefanie Geisler
Globe Correspondent / March 26, 2010

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For 122 years, people have watched Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire to see when the ice clears and “Ice Out’’ can be declared, marking the coming of spring.

This year, the day came so early that it broke a record.

Ice Out was declared Wednesday, beating the previous record of March 28, set in 1921, by four days. The announcement means the largest ship on the 70-square-mile lake can now safely make all ports of call, unimpeded by ice, said David Emerson, the official ice watcher.

“It is a big deal,’’ Emerson said yesterday. “But when it’s out, it’s out. You have to call it like you see it.’’

Although there are still a few patches of ice on the lake, they are mostly in coves and will not block travel, he said. That means the M/S Mount Washington cruise ship — which sails to and from the ports of Meredith, Center Harbor, Alton Bay, Wolfeboro, and Weirs Beach — can now traverse the lake.

Ice Out is a tradition dating back to 1888. The average Ice Out occurs in mid-April, said Emerson.

But temperatures for January and February in the area have averaged three to five degrees warmer than normal, said George Wiseman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grey, Maine. So far this month, the temperature in Concord has averaged 39.4 degrees, or about 7.4 degrees warmer than normal. And the high temperature has been above freezing every day this month.

Emerson said the lake did not get a lot of snow this winter, and last week’s unusually warm days — the temperature rose into the 60s and 70s — and buckets of rain deteriorated the ice.

“Then we had the big winds there yesterday,’’ he said. “That finished it off.’’

A cruise ship named Mount Washington has been navigating Lake Winnipesaukee since 1872, said Jim Morash, the vessel’s current captain. In addition to being the largest ship regularly on the lake, it also covers all parts of Winnipesaukee.

Although Ice Out has been declared, the M/S Mount Washington will not make its first public trip until May 9, Morash said. But he and Emerson agreed that Lakes Region residents may be able to say goodbye to winter a little earlier this year.

“It’s a rite of spring,’’ Emerson said. “It’s something that a lot of people look forward to.’’