Environment
7:18 am
Fri February 22, 2013

Reaping What Winter Sows: The Ice Harvest

Camp Rockywold-Deephaven is a rustic retreat on the North end of Squam Lake. For one-hundred and fifteen years, the camp has been cutting and storing ice from the Lake to keep food cold in their old-fashioned ice boxes. John Jurczynski, the co-manager of Rockywold-Deephaven, oversees a team of about fourteen helpers cutting grid patterns into 12 inch thick ice, and breaking off the squares like chunks of Hershey Bar. The squares are floated into a channel; prodded into a queue with long hooked poles where they bob in place, waiting to be hauled away.

“We grab five blocks at a time bring them up on the ramp, slide it into the back of the truck. Load the truck up and bring it into one of our two ice houses,” Jurczynski explains the process in short form. “We have two or three folks in that ice-house packing them tight against each other.” When each ice house is full, the blocks are covered with a foot of saw-dust to insulate them against the summer heat.

During the summer, camp staff bring ice around in wheelbarrows every morning to the camps guests.

New Englanders have been doing this kind of ice-cutting since the late 1700’s, and the ice trade took off in the mid 19th century. Ice harvested here used to be shipped to the Caribbean, South America, even India and Australia. It was packed into the lining of chilled rail cars, and gave birth to trade in perishable food stuffs.

Nice to Go Back in Time

Rockywold started harvesting at the end of the 1800’s, right about the time that mechanical refrigeration was starting to spell the end of the New England ice trade. But they didn’t stop, and Jurczynski says they aren’t planning on stopping anytime soon.

“Here in the 1970’s they tried putting a few refrigerators in some of the cottages, and guests didn’t go for it all,” Jurczynski says to explain the endurance of the tradition, “It’s the ambiance, it’s very nice to be able to go back in time.”

Of course, the way that the ice is harvested has changed, and the so-called “captain of the ice-harvesting team, Norman Lyford, would know. He’s been doing it for 68 years.

When Lyford started they were using a horse to pull ice blocks up into the truck, instead of a winch. And the saw that they used to cut the ice was a bit more primitive.

Rockywold employees Doug Adams and Mac McComas pack ice cakes into one of the camps ice houses. The process gets more difficult as the height of the stacked cakes gets higher than the truck's bed.
Rockywold employees Doug Adams and Mac McComas pack ice cakes into one of the camps ice houses. The process gets more difficult as the height of the stacked cakes gets higher than the truck's bed.
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

“We used to have a one-lunger. Used to fill it with water to keep it cool.” I ask him to explain what a what one-lunger is, and he replies, “That’s what they years ago they used to have for motors. They called them one-lungers. They were just one spark plug.”

Despite the modern winches and saws and two flat-bed trucks to haul ice, it takes three days of solid work to fill the camp’s two ice houses. That gives enough ice to stock 62 ice boxes all year round.

Late Start

This year’s ice harvest started in early February. It’s the latest start in Jurczynski’s twenty-three years of ice harvesting, though he says Lyford remembers once starting in March. The late start caught some attention: an Associated Press write-up was syndicated and reprinted in all over the country.

And it’s wasn’t just a late start, but a warm season too. Dave White lives in an off-the-grid house one town over. He helps out with the harvest in exchange for being able to fill up his own miniature ice-house.

"It may be an act of faith for Rockywold even to continue to have an ice harvest," he muses, "but I guess if they're willing, I'm willing."

“Somewhere around December we empty the ice house and there are usually, oh eight, ten 11 blocks left, which last until late march early April, sitting out on the ground. I just simply go out and pick on up and put it in the ice box,” White says he has a block and tackle in his kitchen that he uses to lift the 120 pound blocks into his home-made icebox.

“This year, however, we’re down to one. In our experience of twelve years of icing, that’s the fewest we’ve ever had, and I think it’s getting harder to keep ice for a year.”

For him, that ice is a zero-electricity way to keep his food cold, and while this year’s warmth has got him worried, he’s not giving up. “It may be an act of faith for Rockywold even to continue to have an ice harvest,” he muses, “but I guess if they’re willing, I’m willing.”

The ice harvest this year went off without a hitch. Well, one small hitch. They had to stop in the middle to plow the lake after a blizzard dumped 14 inches of snow onto their ice field. No bother, says John Jurczynski, the blizzard turned nice ice-skating conditions into nice cross-country skiing conditions.