What started as an informal game among a few West Danville residents is now a statewide proclamation that winter is finally almost over.

Northeast Kingdom residents are getting ready for the Joe & #039;s Pond Association 14th Annual Guessing Game 2001 Ice-out.

Time is running out, though; ticket sales cease April 1.

Tickets may be purchased at Hastings Store in West Danville, Marty & #039;s 1st Stop in Danville and other area stores.

Last year & #039;s winner, Tamika Hatch, won $2,000. She guessed April 30, 2000, at 6:17 a.m.

The winner gets 50 percent of the total proceeds. The previous two winners guessed April 26 at 2:37 a.m. in 1999 and April 16 at 6:48 p.m. in 1998.

Hastings store owner Jane Larrabee described how it works:

"They put a cement block on a wooden palette. Then they take a rope and run it to Homer Fitts & #039 porch. There is a case with a regular electric clock on the porch plugged into the outlet. When the ice no longer supports it (the cement block), it floats away and unplugs the plug and the clock stops."

The time on the clock is the official ice-out time.

Fitts has a home on Joe & #039;s Pond.

Ice-out organizer Don Walker has been running the show for the past three years. George Karnedy preceded him in presiding over the game before moving to Florida.

"You can watch that ice for days on end before it goes out and there & #039;s no way you can tell," said Walker.

The ice is 31/2 inches thick under several layers of snow right now, according to Walker, who has been traveling regularly from his home in Montpelier to West Danville collecting tickets.

"We & #039;re coming down to the last two weeks," he said, adding that people tend to wait until the last opportunity to buy tickets.

Walker begins by handing out 10 tickets to every camp on Joe & #039;s Pond in July.

"I & #039;ve only received 1,400 back so far," said Walker, who expects to get over 5,000 more by April 1. Ticket sales, he said, are only 22 off from what they were last year at this date.

Last year the association sold 4,982 tickets at a dollar apiece.

Fifty percent of the proceeds go to the Joe & #039;s Pond Activities fund to pay for fireworks.

When do they put the cement block out?

"It isn & #039;t out yet because the snowmobilers would run over the cord," said Fitts, who is one of the founders of the game along with longtime Joe & #039;s Pond camp owners Don Walker and Jules Chatot.

The person who holds the clock and decides when to put it out is Kevin Johnson. According to his wife, Pamela, the clock is a little 4-inch Wilcox bedroom-style clock. Johnson has been the keeper of the clock for the last three or four years.

There seems to be interest in this event from areas far beyond Caledonia County.

Fitts and Johnson report getting inquiries from ABC news in Albany, N.Y., WCAX-TV in Burlington, WDEV radio in Plainfield, and others.

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