WEST DANVILLE — Cabin fever officially broke shortly before sunrise Thursday when a cement block slipped through the slush-covered ice on Joe’s Pond, pulling the plug on the clock mounted on Diane Rossi’s nearby deck.
The time was 5:39 a.m.
Let’s recap: the block dropped, the clock stopped, and spring, which takes a little longer to arrive in West Danville than most of the rest of Vermont, sprung, bringing a popular contest to an abrupt and somewhat surprising end.
“I didn’t see it coming,” said Michelle Walker, whose home on the pond isn’t far from Rossi’s.
According to Walker, the ice looked solid enough Wednesday afternoon. It’s why, she said Thursday, she briefly believed Rossi was playing a prank when she sent word the ice out — a tradition that dates back decades on Joe’s Pond — had just ended.
“When I got the email this morning, I thought Diane was pulling my leg,” Walker said of Rossi, who she joined as co-chairwoman of this year’s ice out.
However, Walker quickly concluded this was no late-April Fool’s joke in a portion of Vermont where they don’t rely on groundhogs to forecast the arrival of spring — they just wait for the ice to go out.
“It happens every year,” said Walker.
Some years it takes longer than others and this was shaping up to be one of those years, before a recent run of springlike rain and balmy weather intervened.
Someone is going to be very happy about that because while they haven’t calculated this year’s prize, Walker said it will be north of $5,000 — not a record, but not bad for a contest that requires a $1 investment and a guess — date and time — when the clock will stop ticking.
This year, minutes mattered because the difference between the winner and the runner-up was two minutes.
Though Walker wasn’t ready to release the winner’s name Thursday, she said the winning guess — 6:01 a.m. on April 25 — was just a little bit closer than the 5:15 a.m. entry.
This is an ice out, not The Price is Right, so going over isn’t a problem. Being closest is all that matters.
Rossi said the committee plans to meet Friday to verify and contact the winner before disclosing his or her identity.
“It’s a Vermonter,” she said. “I don’t want to go further than that.”
That isn’t a given, because the Joe’s Pond Ice Out has attracted entries from across the country and around the globe since it shifted from the friendly guessing game among locals to a fundraiser the Joe’s Pond Association has used to underwrite its annual Fourth of July fireworks display since 1988.
This year, Walker said the association plans to use some of its share — 50% of the ticket sales, less expenses — toward maintaining water quality on the pond by expanding a program to inspect boats launched at the access area created by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The rest of the money will go to this year’s winner, who Walker said was one of more than 5,000 people to enter the contest online.
“That’s more than we’ve ever had,” she said of the figure, which accounted for well over one-third of total ticket sales this year.
Though the contest has featured more entries at least once, this year’s 13,140 is right up there.
The bigger surprise?
Through Wednesday, 10,070 of those entries were still potential winners — a testament to the fact that before ticket sales stopped on April 1, it looked like the ice wasn’t going anywhere soon on Joe’s Pond.
Until about a week ago, Walker said the prospect of the contest dragging into May for a second straight year seemed perfectly plausible and the record — May 6, set in 1992 — seemed vulnerable.
“A lot of people thought it would be sometime in May given the winter we had,” she said of a contest that has now ended in the last week of April a dozen times and stretched into the first week in May another eight over the years.
The contest has only ended on April 25 one other time — in 2008. That year’s contest ended in a four-way tie.
Not this year.
“There’s only one winner,” Walker said.