2011-02-12 / Top News

‘Ice Bridge’

Some Find Freedom, Some Find Thrills in Lake Huron Crossing
By Matt Mikus

Ann Plegue travels toward St. Ignace from Mackinac Island. Ann Plegue travels toward St. Ignace from Mackinac Island. Dennis and Ann Plegue sat on their snowmobiles silently looking over Moran Bay. The couple has traveled 300 miles from Fair Haven to prepare for this trip across the “ice bridge.”

“We do this a little for the adrenaline rush,” Mrs. Plegue said.

The “bridge” is the term travelers use when the lake freezes over enough to ride or walk across. But the name can be deceiving. If you picture some kind of natural suspension bridge rising out of the water and made of ice, spanning the distance between St. Ignace and Mackinac Island, keep dreaming.

This is the fifth time Mr. Plegue has traveled across the ice bridge to visit Mackinac Island, while Mrs. Plegue has traveled over twice.

They come prepared for emergencies. Mr. Plegue double checks his safety equipment, some of it suggested by the Coast Guard; a rope hangs by a carabiner off his belt, a small ice pick dangles around his wrist, and he stores a cell phone in his jacket pocket.

“Not that that’ll do much,” he laughs. He doesn’t expect to get cell phone reception while on the ice, and he prefers not to check first to see whether it will work once it’s wet.

The ice crossing, although a commonplace mode of travel here, can be dangerous and is not sanctioned by the U.S. Coast Guard or any police agencies. Those who often make the threemile crossing over Lake Huron gauge the safety of conditions by their own comfort level, and most say they’d want to see six or eight inches of solid, thick ice before they would consider attempting the trip, while eight inches to a solid foot of ice would make them even more comfortable with its safety. Others say they would take snowmobiles across when ice reaches only four inches thick. Near shore, it may be several feet thick. With currents swirling below the surface of the lake and winter winds often blowing fiercely above, ice thickness varies widely over the route, ice can shift and spread, and travel conditions can change drastically in a matter of hours.

The Plegues gaze out over the ice, looking for clues as to whether the ice is safe to cross. Mrs. Plegue takes out a digital camera to take a photograph. The discarded Christmas trees that guide riders on the path across have been in place for a week, but still they wait to see someone safely coming from the Island toward St. Ignace.

“We’re excited and confident about heading over,” said Mrs. Plegue, “but we still waited until we saw someone else crossing before we decided it was safe. The locals do it all the time, so they know when it’s safe. We want to make sure.”

Jason St. Onge of Mackinac Island is familiar with the perils of traveling by snowmobile to the Island, as are many others who live there. He has been the first to cross the ice bridge for the past six times it has formed, and he never does it alone. He and his friends spend a good deal of time checking the ice conditions and watching temperatures before attempting the first crossing. Even after the first few crossings, conditions on the ice can change in an instant, where the ice can be safe in the morning, but break apart before the end of the day.

“The only consistency is inconsistency,” Mr. St. Onge said. “Conditions change by the hour out there. If the weather’s not good, call ahead to let people know you’re going to cross and call when you make it.”

If visitors aren’t sure about the conditions out on the ice, he said, it’s best to ask a few local residents before risking the ride. And even with the local expertise, there’s no guarantee. The ice can be dangerous, and lives have been lost while crossing, even as recently as 2009.

Even with risks, there’s a level of freedom afforded by having the ice bridge. Travel to and from the Island is restricted by boat and airplane schedules; missing departure times means waiting for another trip.

“When you live on Mackinac Island and the ice freezes over, you can come and go as you want,” Mr. St. Onge said, “The freedom is indescribable.”

Some local businesses even pull freight and equipment over the ice to Mackinac Island, although they tend to err on the side of caution. Larry Belonga of Belonga Plumbing, Heating and Cooling in St. Ignace uses the ice to send workers, supplies, and equipment to the Island. Sometimes his employees take heavy equipment across, but they check the ice beforehand, making sure the ice is thick enough to handle the load.

“I don’t want to send my guys out unless I know it’s safe,” Mr. Belonga said. “In those situations, you have to do your own checking.”

The Plegues are not alone when it comes to visitors traveling the ice. Trucks with snowmobile trailers in tow pull into the Star Line parking lot next to the Mackinac Grille restaurant in St. Ignace. There are visitors bringing their sleds across the Mackinac Bridge for part of their winter adventure, and there are local people, crossing to visit families and friends or buy gas and groceries.

Kurt and Brian Sanders came from Grand Rapids to conquer the ice. They started out over the ice at the edge of the shoreline by the Mackinac Grille, talking about how they will face the challenge.

“We’re doing it because I’m crazy,” Mr. Sanders said, and then motioning to Brian, he adds, “and he wants to just so we can say we did it.”

The Lake Huron crossing was a part of their 600-mile trip though the Upper Peninsula by snowmobile, to Copper Harbor and back. They planned to cross the ice, touch land, turn around, and head back over, barely paying the city a visit.

“We’ve got a lot of places to get to,” Mr. Sanders said.

Gary Slandzicki and his fiancée, Shelly Frazier, from Erie, decided to stay to enjoy the area’s hospitality. They planned a weeklong trip to the Upper Peninsula, and this was their fourth time heading to Mackinac Island by snowmobile. After their trip to the Island, they planned to visit Drummond Island.

“We enjoy their hospitality,” Mr. Slandzicki said. “Mackinac Island is beautiful, St. Ignace is beautiful. Everyone’s so nice around here.”

Steve Bender has traveled north from Big Rapids to St. Ignace for 13 years. He travels north twice every year, once in the summer and once in the winter. Often, he brings friends and family just to enjoy the winter sports, but he checks to see if local residents are traveling across the ice before he ventures out. He likes exploring Mackinac Island in the winter, when the streets aren’t crowded with tourists.

He understands the dangers of crossing the ice, and he’s come close to some drastic situations. One year he headed over the ice with a friend, who owned an older sled prone to problems. They got about halfway across, when he saw almost 30 feet of open water, causing them to stop. To make matters worse, his friend’s sled wouldn’t start again. It took them a good half hour sitting by the open water to get the machine moving again.

“That’s enough excitement as I want,” Mr. Bender said.

Fortunately, conditions are clear for the Plegues, and it’s easy to see the way across. After a few minutes of watching for sleds heading to St. Ignace, they see headlights approaching in the distance. A group of four snowmobiles speeds across the stretch and comes to shore next to Chief Wawatam Park. It is enough to convince them of the sound conditions; the couple turns over the engine, playing with the throttles to make sure the sleds are working properly, and head out on the ice.

Mr. Plegue slows down right after passing Chief Wawatam lighthouse, and Mrs. Plegue stops behind him.

“This is the point where you have to ask yourself if you’re ready,” Mrs. Plegue said, “There’s no turning back after this.”

A second later, they speed off, passing fellow snowmobilers heading toward St. Ignace as they fly across contrasting patches of white snow and clear, black ice. They stick close to the tree-lined path, looking for dangerous patches of slush and cracks in the ice.

About halfway across the ice, they see large pieces of ice jetting up from the surface like foot-tall shards of glass. A pressure crack has formed across the ice, but even with its daunting spectacle of shifting ice it does nothing to deter the snowmobilers, since the crack itself is small and easy to cross. They slow down for just a second to find the best path to cross, then gun it.

After crossing the crack, the couple only encounters a few slush spots, and easily drives up the slope to the Island.

“I wasn’t too worried once we got going,” Mr. Plegue said. “It looked pretty safe out there.”

“I didn’t want to stop, though,” he added.

Coast Guard Does Not Condone Ice Bridge Crossing

Take precautions when traveling on ice, the Coast Guard advised recreational ice users Wednesday, February 9. Ice conditions change, and weather conditions as well as icebreaking efforts can affect ice stability. Coast Guard cutters are often involved in ice breaking near areas used for snowmobiling, and while there are areas where commercial shipping routes are closed, allowing “ice bridges” to form, other routes remain open so commercial traffic may still traffic the area. New fallen snow can cover icebreaker tracks, the Coast Guard reports, and can camouflage open water areas. Often, these ice bridges are close to open waterways, including the popular paths between Mackinac Island and St. Ignace, St. Joseph’s Island to Drummond Island, and Neebish Island to Barbeau. The Coast Guard urges snowmobilers to use extreme caution while traveling across these “ice bridges.”

The Coast Guard doesn’t condone crossing the ice between Mackinac Island and St. Ignace, but Operations Petty Officer Matt Reisinger realizes that people may attempt it, anyway, and he said they do not make any attempt to stop snowmobilers from crossing.

The Coast Guard suggests that before riding over any ice, snowmobilers should know the weather and ice conditions, carry proper equipment such as a floatation device, ice picks, or screwdrivers to break ice, a cell phone or radio or some noise making device to alert others of distress, and wear proper clothing to prevent hypothermia.

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