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Averyt: Surviving Cabin Fever

The ice on Joe's Pond dominates late winter conversation in the Northeast Kingdom town of West Danville. The pond froze over shortly after Thanksgiving this year and by New Year's day the ice measured 14 inches. But it's the ice melt that everyone is waiting for.

Over the next few months, as many as 12,000 pundits worldwide will be trying to guess the precise moment a cinder block will plunge through the ice on Joe's Pond, declaring the official end to winter in Vermont.

The Joe's Pond Ice-Out Contest is part of the local seasonal folklore, an antidote to cabin fever. It's been going on for nearly three decades. The rules are simple, the technology low-brow and the tickets cheap. It still only takes a dollar to wager on the time of the block's plunge - the same cost of a ticket when the contest first began.

It was during a stretch of cabin fever in the late 1980s that a group of friends came up with the idea for the ice-out contest. The men frequently met for morning coffee at Joe's Pond Country Store and talk inevitably turned to the weather. The question on everyone's mind was the same - "When will the ice on the pond go out?"

The men decided to wager on the date of the ice-out and the contest was born. The biggest challenge was to come up with a method marking the precise time of the lake thaw. The system the men devised had a backwoods beauty in its simplicity, and it remains in place today with only a few modifications.

An electric clock is placed on a wooden pallet connected by wire to a cinder block 100 feet out on the pond. When the cinder block cracks through the ice, the clock is dislodged and the "official" time of the ice-out is recorded. The wager closest to the date and time wins. Most winners have been Vermonters, though wagers come from around the world. Proceeds are split 50/50 with the Joe's Pond Committee, which uses its share to fund the town's Fourth of July fireworks.

It's a case of small pleasures bringing big rewards. The annual Joe's Pond Ice-Out has become part of the warp and woof of this Vermont kingdom town. The contest helps West Danville residents survive the sub-zero days of winter until green returns to the mountainsides, when Joe's Pond once again twinkles in the sunlight shimmer of summer.