Spring is here, but so is the ice

HOUGHTON – The extremely cold temperatures of January and February froze Portage Lake and the Portage Lake Shipping Canal to depths not seen in years, and the continuing colder-than-normal temperatures mean some activities on those bodies could be delayed beyond their usual start times.

Phyllis Green, superintendent of Isle Royale National Park, said the park’s ferry, the Ranger III, is in dry dock in Wisconsin for its five-year maintenance. The plan is for it to return to its mooring site at the park headquarters in Houghton the first week in May, but exactly when it returns will depend on the ice situation on Lake Superior and the shipping canal.

“We’ll have to see how it goes,” she said.

Green said staff and equipment usually go out to the park before campers and visitors, but this year they will be delayed.

“We normally try to get there the second week in April,” she said.

Last year, ice on Lake Superior delayed the first trip to the island until the last week in April, Green said.

Green said occasionally the United States Coast Guard is asked to break a path in the ice so the Ranger can get to the island.

“We try not to impact the Coast Guard,” she said.

Visitors are usually taken to the island for the first time about Memorial Day, Green said.

Exactly when an ice breaker will get to Portage Lake and the shipping canal is uncertain according to Mark Gill, United States Coast Guard director of vessel traffic services in Sault St. Marie, Mich.

Although clearing a path for the Ranger III is on the Coast Guard’s list of jobs, Gill said ice breakers are currently working to clear ice on Lake Superior, which is thicker than it’s been in decades, with depths of 30 to 60 inches. There are also wind-created “stacks” up to 14 feet high.

“This has been a monumental year,” he said.

Although the Soo Locks opened to shipping on March 25, Gill said no ships have been able to travel on Lake Superior, yet.

Because of the efforts on Lake Superior, Gill said it’s uncertain when work can start on breaking ice on Portage Lake and the shipping canal.

“We’re probably three to four weeks away from that,” he said.

Gill said the Coast Guard station at Dollar Bay has recorded ice on the shipping canal of 24 to 28 inches, with some spots as deep as 36 inches.

“It’s big,” he said.

Although the ice may be around on local water longer than usual this year, that doesn’t mean ice fishing shanties can stay out longer than usual, according to Debbie Munson Badini, Michigan Department of Natural Resources deputy public information officer in the Marquette office.

Shanties were supposed to be removed from the ice by Monday, Badini said. They can still be used, but they can’t be left on the ice overnight.

“People can still bring them out on a daily basis,” she said.

The freeze-thaw cycle usual for this time of year means using shanties can present problems for anglers.

“It gets really unstable,” she said.

There is a fine for letting shanties fall through the ice, Badini said, because that’s considered littering.

Gill said the ice on Lake Superior is so thick, it may not be completely clear until May or June.

“This is one of those once-in-a-generation events,” he said.