Mild winter means more access to Mackinac Island

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News

Mackinac Island — The water of Lake Huron is choppy and extremely cold. It’s also been relatively free of winter ice.

That means this sailing season is one of the longest in recent history and only the second time boats have been able to service Mackinac Island this late into the winter.

That’s made it easier for island residents, visitors and freight to get back and forth to the Upper Peninsula mainland.

With the exception of the winter of 2002-03 when ice never appeared, the winter of 2015-16 currently ranks as the fifth longest ferry sailing season since records were first kept in 1957. Arnold Mackinac Island Ferry anticipates running all next week, at least, which would move the season into fourth place.

The last time ferries were able to cross from St. Ignace to the picturesque island in the month of February was in 2007 when the last boat sailed Feb. 3.

“It’s awesome,” said Shelbie Mosley, who was returning on a ferry with her 2-month-old son, Jase, from a doctor’s appointment on the mainland. “A set sailing schedule makes it a lot easier for islanders to plan appointments. The weather can be unpredictable and the air service (from St. Ignace) might not be flying — we can plan more easily with the ferry running.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this winter the Great Lakes have only 6 percent ice coverage. On Feb. 8 last year, the lakes were 89 percent ice covered. This year has seen a warmer winter, attributed to the El Nino effect, while last year the state was pummeled with wave after wave of arctic cold and snow in what was called a polar vortex.

The Arnold Mackinac Island Ferry line is the only company running a scheduled service during the winter months. Their three trips a day from St. Ignace is dependent on the weather and ice conditions.

During the spring, summer and fall, three ferry companies carry up to 15,000 tourists a day from Mackinaw City and St. Ignace to the island at the top of Lake Huron within site of the majestic Mackinac Bridge. The island is a popular summer destination, where horses and bicycles slip past Victorian homes. No automobiles are allowed, with the exception of rescue and emergency vehicles.

By the end of October, that all begins to change. Tourist traffic falls off and the 500 year-round residents find life slower and more relaxed. The popular Mustang Lounge on the island even has a party to welcome their pool table back, as it is removed each spring to allow room for more tables.

Ferry runs become fewer as winter layup approaches. Once the lake freezes, the only way to get to the island is by plane from St. Ignace or by snowmobile across the three-mile ice bridge between the U.P. and the island.

The Arnold ferries haul freight to the island, with day workers and a handful of tourists filling seats on the 90-foot Huron. Furniture, lumber, paint supplies and boxes upon boxes of T-shirts and other merchandise to be priced and sold next summer fill the freight wagons.

“Everyone hauling freight benefits,” said delivery man Jacob Hudson, whose two horses stood patiently while Hudson unloaded boxes of clothing to an island retailer. “Everything would get here at one time, whether by airplane or boat, but having a ferry running means more freight arrives sooner than later.”

Sara Chambers, a life-long island resident who delivers freight for United Parcel Service, agreed. “It’s absolutely good to have the ferry running this late,” she said. “The mild weather has been a blessing.”

When the ice becomes too thick for the ferries to leave Moran Bay, the business of moving freight and people to Mackinac Island falls to Great Lakes Air. The St. Ignace company owned by Paul Fullerton averages 20-25 trips a day in good weather, flying everything from beer and paper towels to food supplies, building materials and people.

This winter has been difficult.

Fullerton compares his business to others dependent on the weather, such as farming, and was philosophical about this season’s fickle weather.

“We take whatever Mother Nature gives us,” he said. “The ferries are obligated to serve the island people, and they can carry a lot more freight and supplies than we can. When the ice gets thick, we’ll get busy.”

Island business owners echo his thoughts.

Andrew Doud of Doud’s Market, a full-service grocery store, tries to stock up on non-perishable goods early in the winter to save on freight charges.

“The ferry saves us probably 30 percent in freight charges as they can carry so much more in one trip. It’s a huge benefit to our business and the locals, to have the ferry run later into the winter.”

Great Lakes Air brings in perishable food daily when the ice closes the harbor.

Since the early 1960s the average sailing season is about 288 days, with the shortest season being 1972 with only 249 days of service, from the end of April through Christmas.

The longest season of sailing was from late March 2001 through mid-January 2003 — 664 days.

Arnold is running three round trips each day from St. Ignace. The 90-foot Huron is a steel-hulled ferry that pushes through thinner ice with ease, carrying workers to their day jobs on the island and hauling freight across Lake Huron.

On a recent return trip on the 4:30 p.m. voyage to the mainland, the ship carried 80 passengers and cartloads of freight. The ferry also carried island sports teams to games on the mainland, saving the school and the students time, money and effort.

John L. Russell is a photojournalist and freelance writer from Traverse City.

Longest shipping seasons

With little ice on the lakes so far this season, the sailing season between St. Ignace and Mackinac Island is among the longest in recent history. The shortest was from April through Christmas 1972 with only 249 days of service. The top 10 longest seasons:

■March 28, 2001-Jan. 21, 2003 664

■Feb. 28, 2012-Jan. 26, 2013 335

■March 2, 2011-Jan. 28, 2012 332

■March 17, 2006-Feb. 3, 2007 323

■March 31, 2015-Feb. 14, 2016 320

■March 3, 1998-Jan. 10, 1999 313

■March 15, 2010-Jan. 18, 2011 309

■March 22, 2007-Jan. 19, 2008 303

■March 2, 2000-Dec. 31, 2000 303

■March 26, 1999-Jan. 18, 2000 298

Source: Mackinac Island Chamber of Commerce