It’s the January thaw that apparently doesn’t know when to leave.

As the 2016 calendar rolls over from the first month to the second, the forecast for the capital region calls for warmer than average temperatures and rain midweek before more seasonable temperatures settle in next weekend.

“It’s unusual,” National Weather Service meteorologist Tom Hawley said.

This season has marked the latest in more than 60 years that the Kennebec River has been open. As of Jan. 15, it was still open at Hallowell, and open water can still be seen along its stretch through northern Sagadahoc and southern Kennebec County.

On Monday, the temperature in Augusta was forecast to hit 50 degrees, 30 degrees higher than the average temperature calculated for the day by the National Weather Service, but not high enough to beat the record of 58 degrees set on Feb. 1 in 1989.

The warmer temperatures sent Donna Finch out to her maple trees in Jefferson to check on her sap buckets over the weekend. She usually has about 25 taps at Hidden Fortune Farm. She was testing whether the sap was running, and indeed it was, even though it’s a bit early in the year.

“It’s all about the weather,” said Finch, who tapped maple trees years ago when she was in Connecticut and for the last 15 years or so in Maine.

The trees, she said, are fussy. They like daytime highs in the high 30s or low 40s and overnight lows below freezing, she said, and they like sunny days with no wind.

Normally, trees get tapped a little later in the year, but with this year’s mild weather, the season may start a little earlier.

“It’s not going to continue to run,” she said, because the temperatures are likely to change. She characterized her weekend foray as a trial run. “Because of the crazy weather, I am going to catch what I can.”

Finch isn’t concerned by the dwindling snow pack for her operation. Unless it’s too much to slog through, it plays no role in sap production, but she said it is handy to pack around her holding tank to keep the sap cool.

Hawley estimates the snow pack in the region is about 50 percent of normal. The weather service is conducting snow surveys this week, and it will have a better picture of how much snow remains on the ground by Thursday when the surveys are complete.

‘PLENTY OF TIME FOR WINTER’

Bob Meyers, the executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, said most of the clubs are doing their best to keep trails open and maintained, but the coverage is still pretty thin.

“This is one of those years so far that is really a tribute to the clubs that are out there that they can make it what it is,” he said.

Northern areas like Jackman, The Forks and Rangeley have enough snow cover for some good riding, and the annual Snodeo event in Rangeley in January attracted large crowds despite mixed trail conditions and thin ice that made riding on lakes and ponds too dangerous.

“We’re still optimistic, and we’re not necessarily disappointed with what’s happened so far. There’s still plenty of time for winter,” Meyers said.

Ethan Austin, director of marketing at Sugarloaf ski resort in Carrabassett Valley, said in a recent interview that skiing and riding have been good despite the warm temperatures and limited snowfall.

“The overall season total isn’t where it normally is or where we would like to have it, but it has been good so far,” Austin said.

At Sugarloaf, the daily report Monday listed 100 out of 160 trails open and 54 of the trails were groomed.

Austin said unseasonably high December temperatures sparked some nervousness, but since Christmas vacation, business has been good and the weather has been cold enough that the resort has been able to make snow. If it weren’t for the warm December, the resort would likely be ahead of where it was last year, he said.

“We don’t know what the rest of the winter holds, but for the time being we are cautiously optimistic,” he said.

Ticket sales might also be up because the Saddleback ski area in Rangeley hasn’t been open this year and is in the middle of changing hands. Austin suspects that people who regularly choose Saddleback to ski and ride are turning to Sugarloaf instead. Saddleback officials had previously said they hoped the resort would open by the end of January, but that hasn’t happened yet and the latest update on its Facebook page, on Jan. 15, said “everything continues to move forward.”

“We don’t have a good way to track that, but it certainly stands to reason that all the people who were regular Saddleback skiers are going somewhere else. They’re probably not giving up skiing altogether,” Austin said.

WATER BODIES ON THIN ICE

It’s not the snow pack that concerns Dennis Simard as much as the thickness of the ice covering the lakes and ponds across the area. On Monday, Simard was sitting out on Lower Narrows Pond in Winthrop with a line in the water. He wasn’t having great luck catching any fish, but he was enjoying the weather.

“It’s almost sweatshirt weather,” he said. “At least I am not freezing.”

The warm February day was an atypical day in a winter of atypical days. The ice has been slow in coming, and in some places it’s not very thick, he said. In the four decades or so that he’s been ice fishing, he hasn’t seen many seasons like this one.

The Chelsea resident said he won’t go out on unsafe ice because he doesn’t much care for the consequences.

“I am not into those polar bear (plunges),” he said. “The water gets pretty cold.”

He has fallen through ice at lake edge at the end of the ice fishing season, so he knows whereof he speaks.

When he headed out Monday morning, the pond was covered with snow, but by midday it had melted. Even though Tuesday is expected to be cooler than Monday, it won’t be significantly colder, and the rain expected Wednesday will probably keep him off the ice for a while.

“I’ll stay off it till it buttons up again,” Simard said.

Steve Allarie was also out on the ice Monday. As district game warden for the Augusta area, Allarie was checking ice conditions. The ice has been slow in coming and finicky about staying. Water that was covered even a couple of weeks ago by several inches of ice is now open.

Two years ago, ice fishermen almost needed extensions for their ice augers to reach water through ice more than 2 feet thick. This year, the ice thickness is about 8 inches. The start of ice-fishing season is Jan. 1, or sometimes earlier if the lakes and ponds freeze over. This year, even those that traditionally freeze early were still open.

“I’m telling people to use extreme caution when they go out on the ice, to check the conditions for themselves and don’t rely on what other people tell you,” he said.

Early in January, a snowmobile went through the ice in Cobbossee Lake. There were no injuries and no damage to the snowmobile, but it shows the ice was not reliably thick.

“I still consider the ice sketchy in spots,” he said. The rain that fell several weeks ago didn’t help and neither will the rain — maybe up to an inch — that will fall midweek.

Allarie said as a safety precaution, he takes hand picks with him out on the ice. He recommends that others do the same and use caution when going out on the ice.

“Adding a recreational vehicle compounds things considerably,” he said.

Hawley said after the midweek warm-up, more normal, seasonal temperatures will return by the weekend. The next possibility for snow will be in the middle of next week.

Morning Sentinel reporter Peter McGuire contributed to this report.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ


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