Michigan islanders stranded by ice for second straight week
By Tanda Gmiter
NEEBISH ISLAND - If you overwinter on an island in The Great Lakes, you're likely a hardy soul who is used to the seasonal curve balls thrown by Mother Nature.
The few dozen folks on Neebish Island, off the eastern tip of the Upper Peninsula, are having their mettle tested as suspension of the ferry service that connects them to the mainland stretches into its second week.
Ice is clogging the St. Marys River, where the island sits near the U.S. and Canadian border. The passenger ferry, which takes cars and people from Neebish to the U.P. mainland and back, stopped running because of the ice issue on March 30.
It has essentially stranded those who live on Neebish year-round. The handful of students on the island are using Skype and online homework to keep up with their classes at Pickford Public Schools. Some people who work off-island have left and likely won't be back until the weekend - or if the ferry starts running sooner than that.
"This is the reverse. This should be happening in January, not April," said Dorie Winegard, a special education advocate who lives on the island with her husband, James. "Most of us islanders have anywhere from two to four freezers and we kind of stockpile. But milk and bread, that kind of stuff is hard to do without."
There has been some relief. The U.S. Coast Guard and U.P. officials have contingency plans to reach people on the island in case of emergencies.
And the ferry service operator is using his airboat to make supply runs to the mainland for islanders.
The Winegards are hoping today's supply run brings them more pellets to heat their home, fuel for their vehicles, and other items. "It's not like we don't have the ways or means to survive," she said, but added the situation was wearing thin.
It's unclear when the ice will break up enough to allow the Neebish Island Ferry to resume its regular runs, the military said.
"The Coast Guard ice-breaking assets are steadfast in their effort to clear the ice jam downriver, but conditions have only gotten worse since the ferry service was first halted. Strong northwesterly winds and abnormally cold temperatures have plagued Coast Guard efforts to restore ferry service," it said in a statement this week.
Neebish - named for the Native American word for its leaf-like shape - sits about 15 miles south of Sault Ste. Marie. The St. Mary's River surrounding it is the waterway connector for Lake Huron and Lake Superior. Freighters coming and going from the Soo Locks use the river and pass on both sides of the island.
At least one freighter has gotten stuck in the ice alongside the island in the last few days. The Coast Guard ice breakers were sent to free it.
Winegard said you'd think all the freighter traffic would break up the ice. But a warm-up is what's needed to start flushing the ice downriver.
In case of an emergency on the island, contingency plans include a Coast Guard helicopter, use of a privately-owned airboat, and a Coast Guard airboat team from Saginaw.
The Coast Guard asks anyone on the island who needs supplies to contact Jamie Pringle, the ferry captain who is also the island's liaison to the Coast Guard.
While there's an occasional mechanical or weather problem that shuts down the ferry, islanders haven't faced a halt to the service for this long in the last few years, Winegard said.
She appreciates how people are pitching in to help. Capt. Pringle used his airboat to bring her three young grandsons to the island from the mainland last weekend so she could care for them while their parents were away. But when it was time for the little boys to return home Sunday, ice was stacked up along the river in such a way that Pringle told her the journey off-island wasn't safe for the children in his boat.
"I could understand Jamie not wanting to chance it," she said of the conditions.
The Coast Guard stepped in, packing the kids - ages 8, 9, and 2 - and their grandfather into the airboat for the 10-minute trip back to the mainland.
"The kids thought it was fun," she said of the fast glide across the ice.
For the complete story with photos; please visit: http://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2018/04/michigan_islanders_stranded_by.html