Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Our temporary road

The photo above was taken from the Island Queen, the ferry that takes you from Bayfield, WI to Madeline Island in the summer months. The photo below is taken from roughly the same spot from my Volkswagon as I crossed the ice road which opened about 2 weeks ago.

I've been fascinated with lake ice since I was a kid. When I was a young boy my family would go ice fishing for panfish almost every weekend in the winter. My dad had a belief, correct I may add, that the fish always bit better just after the ice froze. We would be shuffling on to 2-3" of ice with snowshoes (to better distribute our weight), life jackets, and homemade ice picks; two hardened nails embedded in a 5" piece of hardwood broom handle. We would wear two of these around our necks on a string so if you did go through the ice and into the lake you could haul yourself out of the water and back up on the ice. The rule of thumb, which is very conservative since it comes a liability conscious government agency, is 4" to walk, 5" for snowmobiles or ATV's, and 8-12" for cars and light trucks. Neither my dad, me, or my high school buddy, the MadDog, abided much by these guidelines. We took MadDog's father Willy's Chevy van, loaded with every tool he had (he was a carpenter), out on Half Moon Lake just so we could say we were the first ones on the ice that season. I also recall spinning down the lake at 60+ mph in his 1972 Gremlin. We would get the car up to 60 or 70mph on the ice, before the lake was snow covered, spin the wheel and let 'er spin. I'm sure you are all wondering but no, I only fell through the ic once and that incident had nothing to do with thin ice. It could be another post however

Driving on the ice, like skiing and kayaking, seems to be hard wired into my genetic makeup. Driving on the side expanse of a lake frees you from the constraints of roads and being channeled in directions you really don't want to go. Travel in any direction is fine and the environment isn't torn up like it can be when snowmobiles and ATV's decide to do the same thing. This freedom of movement is not the case on Lake Superior however. The ice is constantly moving and shifting and at any time you can have a crack, or 'pressure ridge' form which you may not be able to cross. The worst case scenario is when people venture out for salmon and trout fishing in the spring. If the wind shifts you can find yourself on a gigantic ice floe, headed for Canada.

Ice roads in the winter are nothing new. In fact one of the most famous ice roads in history was the one across Lake Ladoga, the Road of Life (Дорога жизни, doroga zhizni), during the Seige of Leningrad. When the Nazi's surrounded the city in 1941, the ice road was the only way for supplies to get in and civilians to get out of the city. The Road of Life lasted from Nov 20th to April 24th. The Madeline Island road last only a matter of weeks. During this time the island gets an influx of visitors, mostly because its now free to get there. The weather is unpredictable in the spring and a large portion of Lake Superior is open and ice free. As I described with the hapless fisherman above, spring winds can blow the ice road apart in a matter of hours. The Christmas tree in the top photo is one of dozens that mark the road. If the wind and snow are blowing so hard you can't see the next tree, then its time to head back to solid land. Even so, having a road beats the ferry or the ice sled and everyone from school kids to the folks who work on the mainland, or vice versa, has just a little bit easier time getting around the area when the ice road is in operation.


JeremiahJohnstone said...

If you want to read more about Ice road truckers (not gremlins), there is a fantastic book written by Edith Iglauer about trucking goods and supplies in the Northwest Territories. I read it prior to the Ice Road truckers reality show.
Yeah,growing up in Minn, you get used of the ice and what it can hold, especially when your ice fishing on a lake with over 200 ice houses in one area.

Silbs said...

Just the thought of driving on a frozen body of water scares the hell out of me. Besides, I can never find the yellow line :)

DaveO said...

Dick, you could have remained on the shore with the VOR. After skiing across the lake in the BATB the night before, she refused to remain in the car as I headed out to shoot the pix.