Skip to main content

Boreal Community Media

Ice traps U.P. island residents

Apr 10, 2018 10:36AM ● By Editor
James Wineguard, left, rides across the St. Mary's River Thursday, April 5, 2018 with Captain Jamie Pringle from Neebish Island. The island is iced in, with no ferry service since March 30. The airboat is the only way to travel across the open water and ice field for people and supplies.  Photo:  John L. Russell, Special to Detroit News

By John L. Russell, Special to The Detroit News - April 9, 2018 

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.

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.”

To read much more and see a photo gallery, follow this link to The Detroit News website.

Boreal Ship Spotter - larger view here