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Thousands of dollars ride on the moment when Joe's Pond 'ices out'

A man drags a sled of supplies across a frozen lake.
Dana Gray
Mike Wiswell, of Woodbury, pulls a sled carrying the cinder block for the annual Joe's Pond Ice Out contest on March 17, 2021.

As many Vermonters know, ice out day is when a lake or pond loses its ice from shore to shore. It’s kind of Vermont’s version of Groundhog Day — a moment that signals the start of spring.

For the past 35 years, residents at Joe's Pond in Cabot and West Danville have organized an annual ice out competition: whoever comes closest to guessing the exact date and time of the ice out wins a cash prize.

One of the organizers, Michelle Walker, recently spoke to Vermont Edition co-host Mikaela Lefrak about the competition's history.

A thermometer and clock is pictured near a frozen lake.
Joe's Pond Association.
A clock and thermometer are pictured near Joe's Pond.

On how the ice out contest started:

Michelle Walker: Well, it depends on who you ask. The people that lived on or near the lake during the wintertime obviously get cabin fever. West Danville, which is where part of the lake is, is one of the highest settled elevated communities in Vermont, at 1,551 feet. So winter doesn't leave easily or quickly.

And one of the things I discovered looking through things is a page from 1976 — people got together and guessed just the date. No money was involved at all. But several people just guessed when the ice is going to go out. From what I understand the contest in its early roots goes back in to the early 1900s.

On how it works, then and now:

I call it affectionately a Rube Goldberg device. They put a pallet with a cement block out on the ice. And it had a breakaway switch that went back to the deck at Homer Fitts' camp. Homer is no longer with us. But he lived up here year round. So there was somebody that was constantly keeping an eye on things. And when the block fell through the ice, the breakaway switch unplugged the electric alarm clock. And that was known as the official date that the ice went out.

It has been modernized somewhat. We still have a pallet. And in the middle of the pallet is a cement block. And there's an orange flag that we put up on it. So if anybody is out on the ice, they know to stay away from that area.

The tickets are still $1. We still take the costs out of the pot, and then divide the pot in half. And the woman who won the contest last year took home a check for over $5,000.

On where the other half of the pot goes:

It was originally decided that it would be used to support the Fourth of July fireworks, and they're always pretty spectacular. It's really a lovely sight.

But we found that we had extra money. And so we're using that to improve, or keep an eye on, the water quality in the lake. And we have also set up a checking station at the State of Vermont fish and game access area. So during summer months, that's manned by people from the Joe's Pond Association, to look at boats that are coming in and make sure they don't have any aquatic hitchhikers.

Broadcast on Wednesday, April 13, 2022 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.