High-tech devices to determine ice out in Hancock

HANCOCK – A miniature replica of the town’s Meeting House, complete with steeple, appeared Saturday on the ice at Norway Pond. It’s the work of a group of volunteers associated with the First Congregational Church, and it’s sheltering a cinder block that will eventually break through the melting ice. When that happens, a custom-built solar powered device will transmit the exact time of “ice out” to a computer on shore. From there, that information will go directly to organizers of the church’s first annual ice out drawing. They are selling tickets where people can predict the time the block will fall, with the person choosing the time closest to the actual event winning half the proceeds of the ticket sales.

Dick Warner of Hancock, who lives in a house on the shore of the pond, said the idea of a contest to guess when the ice would melt was first pitched to him by a neighbor, Phil Jones, after a dinner nearly a year ago.

“Phil asked me if I’d help on this,” Warner said on Saturday. “I didn’t really know what to say, so I said sure. The next thing I know, he sent me a huge folder all about what they do at Killington in Vermont.”

Jane Richards-Jones, Phil’s wife, said their initial idea for the church fundraiser had been for something simple.

“We were envisioning a small wooden box with an alarm clock,” she said. But the project soon took on a life of its own. Since the intent was to benefit the church’s effort to maintain the Meeting House building and the Vestry next door, Warner decided a structure on the ice that looked like the church would draw attention. And the alarm clock was quickly replaced with a more high-tech communication solution.

Warner and fellow volunteers Bob Fogg of Hancock and Tod Bryer of Antrim set to work designing and building a replica of the church (complete with a clock face on the steeple painted by the church’s minister, Judy Copeland) and a foundation that will float after the ice vanishes, so the whole structure doesn’t go under along with the cinder block. That structure went out onto the pond Saturday, after the ice became firm enough to support the weight of about 15 volunteers.

Meanwhile, Marc Spinale of Hancock took on the challenge of figuring out the best way to track the exact time of ice out. Spinale owns Grid Be Gone, LLC, a Peterborough firm specializing in renewable energy products.

“I had a real good time doing this,” Spinale said on Saturday. “It was neat to come up with a simple solar-based solution that uses very little power.” He designed, built and tested a tiny device that will sit out on the ice to monitor conditions, including temperature and battery health but also the angle of a capsule made of PVC pipe that’s attached to the cinder block. It’s powered by a 15-watt solar panel attached to the roof of the structure. When the ice gives way beneath the block, the capsule will rotate 90 degrees and begin to float. The change in angle will trigger a message to a tiny computer, about the size of a deck of cards, that Spinale built to sit on the shore. From there, the exact time will be sent via the Internet to committee organizers, a server at Spinale’s company and to the website iceout.gbgone.com.

The computer will also gather data prior to the ice out and post that information so ticket buyers can track the likelihood of winning the contest.

Spinale, who expects to install all the electronic equipment this week, said he’s confident that the technology will work well. He plans to move the solar panel from the back of the structure to the front, so the shadow of the steeple doesn’t limit the amount of sunlight the panel gets.

“I want to have the highest odds for success possible,” he said.

There will also be a more low-tech way for people to know when the contest ends. Those driving by the pond should keep an eye on the top of the steeple. Like a ice fisherman’s tip-up, the flag will pop up there when the block breaks through.

The ice out drawing is a fundraiser for the First Congregational Church. The person predicting the time closest to actual ice out will receive half the proceeds of the drawing. Tickets are $2 each or three for $5 and can be purchased at Fiddleheads, the Hancock Market and the Hancock Inn or from church members. All tickets must be submitted by March 15.

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