ALLAGASH – Water levels on the St. John River have been like a yo-yo – up and down and up again – for nearly a week because of an ice jam.
Water levels at Dickey Village have gone from 12 feet to as much as 20 feet at their deepest on Christmas Eve and were back down to 12 feet hours later when a channel opened.
At noon Monday, the river was at 17 feet at Dickey, according to National Weather Service hydrologist Mark Turner.
“The jam has let go, but we don’t know where the ice went,” Turner said. “The water [level] gauge shows that something has happened. The St. John looks like a springtime river. There is still some problem there, and there will be, until nature takes its course.”
River levels have also been fluctuating at Fort Kent. The level was at a season high of 15 feet last Tuesday, but was down to about 11 feet Monday. That is still 3 to 5 feet higher than normal for freeze up, according to Police Chief Kenneth Michaud, a longtime river watcher.
Turner said a channel apparently opened, letting water through until the ice jams and closes the gap again.
He said the Allagash area is going into winter with an ice jam in place.
“If conditions are right [in the spring] it could be a catastrophe,” he said. “However, the weather would need several events to go wrong at the same time.”
Turner explained that the ice jam could be worsened by a cold winter that would bring thick ice. Coupled with a rapid spring thaw, a quick snow melt and one or two inches of quick rain, that could bring rapid and very high levels of water in the river.
While the river is not extremely high, Turner said, it is “higher than normal for this time of the year.”
Mild weather on Monday and Tuesday, along with the expected rains, could change ice conditions on the river.
On Sunday, there seemed to be a free flow of water through the Dickey ice jam. Solid ice was still in place through the Allagash. Low-lying fields and forests were inundated by high water levels and were left covered in ice.
At St. Francis, many areas of open channels were visible in the icy river. A clean sheet of ice covered the river through St. John Plantation.
The river flowed free of ice cover from an area several miles upriver from Fort Kent to below Madawaska.
Turner said there were also worrisome ice jams on the Allagash River a couple of miles south of Allagash Village. There also were several ice jams on the Aroostook River at Squa Pan and at a couple of miles north of the Fort Fairfield Bridge.
“This will be an active season,” Turner said. “No jams are threatening at the moment, but water levels at Dickey are unpredictable.”
The situation has Roy Gardner, first selectman at Allagash and a river watcher for various federal agencies for years, concerned. He was head administrator of the town when a disastrous ice jam caused havoc in 1991.
In the winter of 1991, ice on the St. John River broke apart and jammed during the January thaw. More ice formed when cold weather returned.
When the river ice broke in the spring, a large ice jam had formed above the bridge on the St. John River at Allagash. The bridge was a few hundred feet upstream from the Dickey Trading Post. The ice jam had also backed up into the Little Black River at the confluence of the St. John River.
When the huge ice jam moved, it took down bridges on both the St. John and Little Black rivers and destroyed several homes.