Thursday, April 10, 2008
"Ice Out" on the Ontonagon River, March 25, 2007, looking upriver past the railroad bridge and new highway bridge as broken-up floes course toward the camera and Lake Superior.
It's almost time for Ice Out.
Ice Out -- the precise date and time in which the thick ice of winter breaks up thunderously in the Porcupine River and sweeps in crackling fragments out into Lake Superior -- is a big deal in Porcupine County in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Ice Out heralds the unofficial beginning of spring there, much as the sighting of the first robin does farther south in the Midwest.
Excuse me, I mean the Ontonagon River in Ontonagon County. My novels' mythical place names tend to run away with my imagination.
The Rotary Club in Ontonagon sponsors a yearly contest in which entrants ante a dollar along with a guess for the instant the ice breaks up. The guess closest to the mark wins the pot. The following day, the daily newspapers in Houghton, Marquette and Ironwood all herald the winner.
The exact time of Ice Out is judged by the county road commission, which has a worker on duty 24 hours a day whose responsibilities include keeping an eye on the river.
Steve Sundberg, this blog's chief Porcupine County correspondent, reports that his yearly guess expired last Sunday, April 6, at 6:42 a.m., so he is "probably out of the money."
Steve's photos here are from last year's Ice Out. "It was on March 25, a Sunday afternoon, I believe, so I was able to see it. It usually seems to happen in the middle of the night. Still pictures cannot capture the noise, speed and movement of the ice. It started as open water running on the outside edges. The ice seemed to lift, possibly from an upstream ice dam letting go, and started moving quickly for the mouth. It was quite impressive."
Steve tells an amusing story about the Ice Out of 1998. The day afterward, Steve and his wife, Linda, "went down by the river to watch the large ice floes churning down the river and out into the lake. The river was about half ice and half water and the current was moving fast. Looking upstream, I saw something I could not believe: a guy riding a floe downriver. . . . He was sitting on a cooler, half full of beer I’m sure, on a chunk of ice about 10 by 20 feet and he was coming fast.
"I jumped out of the van as he came close to shore and asked him if he was OK. 'Yah,' he said. 'We have a plan.'
"We? I looked upstream and about a quarter mile up there was another floe with two guys on it and farther upstream from them was still another with a single rider.
“'Where did you guys come from?'” I asked.
“'Rockland,' he answered.
"Rockland is 10 miles from Ontonagon by highway, but about 20 miles by river. There is a bridge near Rockland where you can access the river, but there is no other access or any way out of the river valley until you get to Ontonagon. The first ten miles the river valley is deep, with 100- to 150-foot banks. Not quite a canyon, but it would be a tough climb out.
"There are two significant rapids in this stretch: Irish Rapids, where the river drops 10 feet in 50 yards, and Grand Rapids, where the river flows over rock shelves for about a quarter of a mile. How could you ride an ice floe in high water over these rapids? I have no idea. If you fell in and got hypothermic, had your leg crushed between floes or simply got stopped in a backup of ice, you would be on your own.
"The aforementioned 'plan' was no doubt hatched late on a Saturday night after consumption of more than a few Old Milwaukees. The ice riders were supposed to be picked up by a friend in an inflatable Zodiac with an outboard motor as they passed the Ontonagon Marina.
"There was just one slight miscalculation. The river narrows at it passes the marina, under a bridge and between two breakwaters before emptying into the lake. The river picked up speed as it narrowed, and the ice riders were sucked past the marina, sped under the bridge, zoomed through the channel and popped out into Lake Superior before they knew it. Next stop Canada, about 80 miles away, if their ice floes didn’t melt first.
"The Zodiac followed the riders out into the lake and plucked them from their floes.
"The sheriff’s department, meanwhile, had gotten wind of the adventure and two deputies were making their way out the west breakwater, either to assist in the rescue or give tickets to these dunderheads if they could only think to what to charge them with.
"Fully loaded, the Zodiac wasn’t able to make any headway up river against the fast current in the channel, so the skipper dropped the riders on the icy, rocky east breakwater and made a run for the marina. The riders scrambled over the breakwater and disappeared before the deputies could reach the east side of the river.
"All except one rider, the youngest, about 17 years old. He was being congratulated by his girlfriend for his daring when a deputy pulled up and motioned him over to the patrol car. He wisely dropped the cooler he was carrying and went over to receive his chewing out. After five minutes he returned to his girlfriend, smiling and laughing, knowing he had accomplished what few would ever dare, or be stupid enough, to try.
"That evening we related this story at Doc’s Bar and Renee, our favorite bartender, said, 'Oh yah – they do that every year.'"
All grist for a mystery novelist's mill. I'm already preparing in my head a thorough verbal lambasting of that adventurous lad by Sheriff Steve Martinez.
By the way, I emailed Jan Tucker, the Ontonagon radio personality (WUPY), unofficial town crier and expert in Ice Out history, and asked for the dates of Ice Out the last ten years. They are:
1998: February 20 at 6:30 p.m. (This is the earliest recorded date for Ice Out; April 21, 1972, is the latest date recorded so far.)
1999: March 29 at 5:25 p.m.
2000: March 6 at 11:55 a.m.
2001: April 4 at 5:30 p.m.
2002: April 12 at 2:54 p.m.
2003: April 10 at 11 p.m.
2004: March 30 at 7:10 p.m.
2005: March 31 at 7:35 p.m.
2006: April 1 at 5:20 a.m.
2007: March 25 at 4:52 p.m.
Thanks, Jan. And thanks, Steve. I'll report on this year's Ice Out as soon as I get the news.
The ice sweeps past the breakwaters and the Ontonagon Harbor Light out into Lake Superior. (Both photos by Steve Sundberg.)