Ice traps U.P. island residents

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News

Barbeau — Residents of an Upper Peninsula island have been trapped by ice jams for a week and a half and are trying to wait out an unusual onslaught of subfreezing temperatures until ferry service is restored.

Captain Jamie Pringle operates an air boat across the St. Mary's River to Neebish Island, April 5, 2018, carrying mail and supplies to the iced-in island south of Sault Ste. Marie.

The situation has become untenable enough that one island family over the weekend convinced the U.S. Coast Guard to activate its air boat and evacuated their three grandchildren from Neebish Island. The cutter Neah Bay spent a day trying to break loose the freighter Mesaba Miner from thick ice in the West Neebish Channel.

Ice floes or blockages are one of the hazards of living on sparsely populated Neebish Island, an eastern Upper Peninsula community in the St. Mary’s River that connects Lake Superior to the north and Lake Huron to the south. Every year, the about 40 winter inhabitants keep watch for broken up ice that floats down from Lake Superior and often causes blockages in the narrow waterways surrounding the island.

The Neebish Island Ferry — which connects island residents to the Michigan mainland and surrounding islands — stopped operating March 30 after getting a warning of the impending ice jams from the U.S. Coast Guard two weeks earlier. The ferry normally operated year-round, but on a reduced schedule from Oct. 1 through Memorial Day.

One private air boat or a helicopter are the only other ways off the island, which has no gas station, grocery store or airstrip.

“This could be a long haul,” said 85-year-old Dot Tyner, who has lived on the island for 65 years. “We’d be lucky if it clears in a couple of weeks.”

Jamie Pringle, who has operated the Neebish Island Ferry for eight years and is an air boat owner, said he carried three young boys and their grandfather across the channel last Thursday on an air boat. Powered by a 200-horsepower Lycoming aircraft engine, the boat can float over snow, water and ice.

The two elementary students on the air boat would join three high school students on the island, who are home-schooled through lessons from the Pickford Public Schools. Internet connections by satellite allow computers to stream information to the island’s students.

“I’ve made probably 40 trips in the first week without the ferry,” said Pringle, who has been a captain for 30 years and delivers essential goods and mail daily from the mainland. “The ice is getting worse with this extended cold and snow. It’s going to be really busy when the islanders begin to run out of supplies.”

The situation is worse this year because of the onset of an Arctic spring. The low temperatures were below zero degrees from Thursday through Saturday, and there was a Sunday night low temperature of 7 degrees, according to the U.S. Coast Guard command in Sault Ste. Marie. By contrast, last year there was a mild winter with no ice jams.

“This entire season the temperatures have been below the statistical temperature average for the Upper Peninsula. We just can’t get past the cold,” said Mark Gill, director of vessel traffic services for the U.S. Coast Guard.

Since the government agency has only kept records since 1971, “what is considered ‘normal’ is an unknown,” Gill said.

The situation became untenable for James and Dorie Wineguard, who had been babysitting 2-year-old Phoenix, 8-year-old Sander and 9-year-old Blaze since Thursday so their mother Melissa White could go to a doctor’s appointment in Traverse City.

Since the grandchildren needed to be back at school in Pickford on Monday, the family alerted the Coast Guard because the smaller, privately operated air boats couldn’t travel safely across the broken ice field in the river.

“We have four freezers full of food, a supply of pellets for our wood stove, and plenty of gasoline,” said Dorie Wineguard. “Islanders rely on each other during the winter. This year we are isolated, but we will help each other through it.

“If someone needs something and we have it, we share.”

Why ice jams occur

The narrow waterways running by the island make them more suspectible to ice jams. In this case, ice had been building in Lake Superior over the past few weeks with the return of below-freezing temperatures. The ice floes got pushed south or downstream into the lower St. Mary’s River, helping to isolate Neebish Island.

“This year we have had a lot of ice, thick and solid,” said Jim Carstens, owner of the MMC Store in neighboring Barbeau, the U.P. community directly across the west channel. “The river is about a mile wide upstream and narrows to 300 feet at the mouth of the channel. It plugs up with ice.

“Islanders chose to live there all year and are prepared for a long winter. They’re a tough bunch.”

Neebish Island is surrounded by the mainland UP to the west, Sugar Island to the north and the much-larger St. Joseph’s Island of Canada to its immediate east. About 90 people live on the island during the summer.

Sugar Island as well as Drummond Island, which is more than 30 miles southeast of Neebish Island, have maintained ferry operations because they are surrounded by larger areas of open water. The Eastern Upper Peninsula Transportation Authority operates three ferries on the St. Mary’s River — Neebish Island, the Sugar Island ferry at the Sault Ste. Marie and the Drummond Island ferry at Detour Village where the river meets Lake Huron.

“We’ve only had ice problems at Neebish Island,” said Authority Executive Director Peter Paramski. “The river is much wider at Sugar and Drummond Islands.”

19th-century digging

March 25 is the traditional opening of the shipping season, when the Coast Guard uses icebreakers to ensure clear passage for freighters and other commercial ships that were shut down for the winter. Ice jams can occur for short periods of time as the ice clears each spring.

The situation may have been worse a century and a half ago.

The opening of the Soo Locks in 1855 brought increased shipping traffic through the St. Mary’s River into Lake Superior. All vessels passed on the east side of Neebish Island because the west channel was too shallow for freighters.

As ships became larger and shipping increased by the end of the 19th century, the West Neebish Channel was deepened to 21 feet by an act of Congress to allow for the safe passage of vessels. The channel was also widened to 300 feet.

Eleven dredges and 700 men removed 12 million cubic yards of rock and river bottom over four years, opening the channel to vessels in 1908.

The river flowing from the north narrows at the entrance to the channel, which is lined with steel walls for its entire 1,000 feet and is now 30 feet deep. Ships going south toward Lake Huron move through the west channel of the island while ships going north toward Lake Superior move through the east side channel.

The Coast Guard regularly guides freighters — about 1,000 feet in length — through the narrow west channel during the winter and early spring.

“There are inconveniences,” said Tyner, whose husband and father were ferry captains. “It isn’t like any of us didn’t know what to expect.”

As a result, hope really springs eternal for island residents.

“Spring is coming,” Tyner said. “We’ll be fine.”

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