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On thin ice: How warming winters are changing the Squam Lake ice harvest

As climate change warms up New Hampshire’s winters, the annual ice harvest on Squam Lake has been pushed later and later in the season.
Zoey Knox
/
NHPR
As climate change warms up New Hampshire’s winters, the annual ice harvest on Squam Lake has been pushed later and later in the season.

Neil Cederberg and Ryan Hambrook spent many of their winter mornings together doing the same routine. As the sun rose, they balanced cups of coffee in a bumpy truck, driving down a potholed road to a part of Squam Lake known as Eastman Cove. They strapped tiny spikes to their shoes, walked out hundreds of feet onto the frozen lake, and measured the ice.

Most days, they drilled small holes at the corners of a square marked off by cones and slipped a skinny handmade ruler into the ice until it hit water. After snowstorms, they spent hours clearing snow off their section of the lake, to speed up the freezing process.

Editor's note: We strongly recommend listening to this story by hitting the red listen button.

They watched the water freeze and thaw, as one of the warmest winters in New Hampshire’s recorded history brought rain and sunshine. And they waited for the ice to grow to 12 inches – thick enough to support the weight of a pick-up truck.

Cederberg and Hambrook were preparing the lake for a longstanding tradition: a harvest, where roughly 200 tons of ice are cut out of Squam to be used at Rockywold Deephaven Camps in Holderness.

Families rent old-school cabins there during the summer. The facilities don’t have refrigerators – just special chests that are filled with massive blocks of ice each morning, to keep wine and Capri-Sun cool.

Once a booming trade, Rockywold Deephaven Camps is one of the few places left in New England that harvests ice each winter. The camp was founded in 1897, and has since trained generations of workers on how to cut, haul, and store lake ice.

But as climate change warms New Hampshire’s winters, the harvest is facing new threats. This winter and last winter, the ice wasn’t thick enough to start cutting until Feb. 15 – the latest the harvest has happened in workers’ collective memory.

Hambrook and Cederberg went to elementary school together in Sandwich. Nowadays, they pick each other up for work many mornings, and tend to finish each other's sentences.
Mara Hoplamazian
/
NHPR
Ryan Hambrook, left, and Neil Cederberg, right, went to elementary school together in Sandwich. Nowadays, they pick each other up for work many mornings, and tend to finish each other's sentences. 

“No one can ignore it. It’s the elephant in the room. We’re going to have to work around less favorable conditions, which is a warmer climate.” Cederberg said. “If it were cold, we’d be able to do this forever.”

“But it’s not anymore,” Hambrook chimed in.

“Or at least it hasn’t been these past couple years,” Cederberg said.

The harvest

The ice hovered around 10 or 11 inches throughout late January and early February. Eric Morse, the camp’s harbormaster, emailed ice harvest workers, many of whom take time off from day jobs to join each year, with updates on melting and growth.

After weeks of rescheduling to hold out for colder weather, he looked over the glassy lake, holding steady under about a dozen workers on a chilly, sunny Thursday morning, with a smile.

“It’s just so beautiful out here,” he said. “It's just absolutely gorgeous. Especially on a day like today where it's not freezing cold, and the wind has subsided and it's a blue sky day. The scenery is amazing, looking up at these beautiful mountains.”

Harvesters use a variety of old, wooden tools used to cut, move, and pack the ice into small shelters, where it stays packed in sawdust throughout the summer. As people move around the ice, the warming sun sometimes causes small cracks to form.
Zoey Knox
/
NHPR
Harvesters use a variety of old, wooden tools used to cut, move, and pack the ice into small shelters, where it stays packed in sawdust throughout the summer. As people move around the ice, the warming sun sometimes causes small cracks to form.

Cederberg, also thrilled to be on the ice after so much waiting, was in charge of cutting the ice – one of the most honored positions in the harvest.

His three-foot circular saw blade sat in a wooden box nestled between two sleds. It sprayed out a powdered-sugar looking stream of chipped ice as he dragged it backwards, careful to cut most of the way through but not to the water. He used a chainsaw to loosen the edges of a large grid of smaller blocks.

Cederberg is relatively new to the job. He said he learned how to cut the ice field from harvesters who came before him.

“It was a brief explanation, and then you just get tossed into it,” he said.

Workers stand along a rectangular pool of water cut out of the ice known as the “channel.” The ice blocks – a foot by a foot and a half, each weighing around 120 pounds – are pried from one another with long pikes, after being nearly cut through with the saw.

A few people herd the ice blocks (in harvester parlance, ice “cakes”) from where they’ve been cut out of the lake towards the shore. The cakes are hooked onto a winch and dragged up a wooden ramp and into the bed of a waiting pick-up truck, which drives them over to ice houses to get sorted and stacked.

Willow Furey, who works for Rockywold Deephaven Camps full-time, was helping at the ice harvest for the first time this year, holding a big wooden pike and moving ice cakes through the channel.

“I basically get a free history class today from all these other generations that have been doing this,” she said. “I love the team camaraderie.”

An old tradition

Before the camp had winches and trucks, workers said earlier generations used hand saws and horses to pull the ice out of the water and get it to the ice houses.

Even with new technology and safety practices that make ice harvesting more efficient and comfortable, it’s not widely practiced throughout New England any more.

“It's kind of a lost art. It was such a huge industry in New Hampshire,” Eric Morse said. “They used to ship ice all over the world before refrigeration. And you can see why they switched to refrigeration. It's a lot less work. And probably less expensive. But this is pretty neat. It’s a neat tradition to keep going.”

The camp tried to keep up with the times. Years ago, they attempted to install small electric refrigerators in the cabins. The guests refused.

Camp workers bring food and hot drinks out for harvesters throughout the day and serve them next to this equipment shed. Small muffin-shaped egg treats with ham and scallions are the team favorite.
Zoey Knox, NHPR
Camp workers bring food and hot drinks out for harvesters throughout the day and serve them next to this equipment shed. Small muffin-shaped egg treats with ham and scallions are the team favorite.

“Probably half the reason some people come to stay is the way this stays old,” Cederberg said, reflecting on the tradition in the cab of a truck with Hambrook, after the two measured the ice on an early February morning.

“And probably in a different way, it’s just as important to a lot of us,” Hambrook interjected. “It's keeping part of what this place used to be, not just Rockywold, but this whole area. Our whole little world – Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont – people were doing this.”

For Jane Kellogg, who started working the ice harvest 25 years ago, one of the best parts of the event is seeing old friends and remembering those who have passed on or moved away who used to be part of the harvest.

“The camp is about traditions, anyways. It always has been. And when traditions change, they change gradually, and sometimes with a lot of angst,” Kellogg said. “If because of climate change we have to give it up – we don’t know, but if we have to – that will be a very big loss.”

A new method

El Niño has influenced the particularly warm temperatures this winter. But, in general, New Hampshire’s winters are getting warmer as humans continue to change the climate. The average minimum temperature in the state has increased more than three degrees since the 1970s, according to the state’s latest climate assessment.

Scientists project that the coldest day and the coldest night of the year could warm between 12 and 22 degrees by the end of the century, depending on how much humans cut greenhouse gas emissions. In some projections, the state could see 35 more “thaw” days each winter, when minimum temperatures are above 28 degrees.

"Tradesmanship is something that a lot of younger generations don't know," Willow Furey said. "Running a chainsaw, a mill, or something like that. Those are things we need to pass on to our younger generation so we have people, when these other older generations are ready to retire, we have those people in place to keep this going."
Zoey Knox
/
NHPR
"Tradesmanship is something that a lot of younger generations don't know," Willow Furey said. "Running a chainsaw, a mill, or something like that. Those are things we need to pass on to our younger generation so we have people, when these other older generations are ready to retire, we have those people in place to keep this going."

“We've got to figure out something new fast, I would say. And we are working on that now,” said Sam Howe. Howe’s great-grandmother started Rockywold Deephaven Camps, and he said his family has been cutting ice ever since.

“This is the biggest emblem of climate change during my winter, not being able to count on doing icing in January,” he said.

The harvest team is working to find a way to change the system so that heavy equipment, especially pickup trucks, can stay off the ice. That way, the lake would only need to be frozen enough to hold people. The ice need to be 12 inches thick.

Cederberg is planning to build a new apparatus, a much longer ramp for ice that could allow blocks to be floated directly to shore and transported from there.

Breaking with convention is a challenge, he said. But to keep the tradition alive, they need to keep trucks off the ice.

Eastman Cove is a new spot; the ice at Deep End, a part of the lake on the camp’s property, hasn’t been freezing thick enough to hold the tools and trucks that the team uses to harvest the ice.
Zoey Knox
/
NHPR
Eastman Cove is a new spot for ice harvesting; the ice at Deep End, a part of the lake on the camp’s property, hasn’t been freezing thick enough to hold the tools and trucks that the team uses to harvest the ice.

“Thinking outside the box, that was kind of a traditionally frowned upon practice when I first started,” he said. “Everything’s getting better the more time we invest in it. Although right now it seems kind of dim – the way we do it, and how vulnerable we are – it’s getting less so as time goes on. I’m looking forward to it. We’ll still be doing this in 20 years.”

Dave Lacasse, the head of maintenance for Rockywold Deephaven Camps, says they’ve been trying to move off of fossil fuels. The camp is in the process of applying for a federal grant to switch to electric equipment. Their goal is to be carbon neutral by their 150th anniversary – 2047. But, he says, climate change is so much bigger than what they can control.

“Let's face it, if we can get away from the greenhouse gasses, we could probably stop this global warming,” he said. “But is it going to happen? I don't know. It's tough to decide whether there's enough people that care. So you can only do your little part, I guess.”

Lacasse says the camp has started thinking about other alternatives, like buying huge blocks of ice to stock the guest’s cabins instead of harvesting it from the lake. But that would be prohibitively expensive, he said.

For now, the yearly routine of measuring, snow-blowing, planning, rescheduling, cutting, floating, hauling, loading, and preserving the ice in sawdust for summer guests will continue – and Howe says, so will he.

“I'm 75 years old. I don't know how much longer I'll be doing it, but I'm going to do it until I drop. And I certainly hope that we will continue this tradition for a long time,” he said. “I don’t know how we’ll do it, what it’ll look like. But the day that we go to ice cubes would be a very sad day.”

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.