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Ice Coverage on Lake Michigan Isn’t What It Used to Be

The rescues that brought 66 people from three separate ice floes safely to shore last week appeared pretty dramatic as viewed from land. 

It wasn’t a scene witnessed often, if ever, in Door County, with two U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Air Station helicopters out of Traverse City, Michigan, lowering personnel to the ice to help coordinate the rescue and vectoring airboats to groups of shanties. The effort included personnel and equipment from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and local units from Door, Brown and Kewaunee counties.

Against the backdrop of this four-hour rescue effort was a winter storm galloping toward the peninsula carrying heavy snow and high winds.

“That certainly factored into our risk assessment,” said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Andrew McGinnis.

Door County Pulse Podcasts · 66 Rescued from Ice Floes North of Sturgeon Bay

The ice had broken around 9 am Feb. 4 along a crack that forms where the earlier freezes of the various inlets and bays bump up against the later ice of the open Green Bay water. The temperatures were around 35 F that morning with an offshore wind. As the approaching storm system pushed the floe farther from shore, the currents cracked the ice into smaller sections, stranding the 66 anglers on three separate floes: one off Sherwood Point in Nasewaupee, another in Sand Bay in Gardner and the third in Little Harbor in Sevastopol.

Located on one of those floes – ice fishing for the first time in Door County with his brother, Tom – was Jim Anderson. From where Anderson stood awaiting rescue, the action wasn’t nearly as dramatic as that shoreland perspective had appeared. 

“I’m kind of a chicken, and I felt pretty safe,” he said. 

Anderson has been the president of the board of trustees for the Village of Sauk City, Wisconsin, for the past 18 years. He’s well versed in safety guidelines and protocols and involved with all kinds of drills on safety and rescue. 

Airboats – like this one seen on the ice floe north of Little Harbor in Sevastopol – were also used in the rescue effort. Photo by Doug Henderson.

“Most of our ice rescues are the guys who can’t wait until the ice freezes, and they fall through,” Anderson said. 

This wasn’t that. 

“We hired a guide who’s been doing this for 18 years,” he said. “The due diligence everybody did that day and the constant monitoring gave me confidence they had covered the bases.”

Anderson was booked for a three-day trip and had caught his limit of 10 whitefish the day before. The morning of the rescue, he was back in the shanty about two miles out. He had already caught seven whitefish when a guide informed them they were at the beginning of a rescue. Anderson said he left the shanty and saw that the crack had grown into open water about a football field’s distance away. He estimated there were about 20 shanties close together on the floe and about 30 people, aged from preteens to people older than his 67 years. 

Anderson had no sense that they were floating away. The water did start to cover the ice, eventually enveloping the shanties in half a foot of water. But even then, he said, he had no concerns.

“Within half an hour, you could hear the airboats coming, and the helicopters were circling,” Anderson said. 

He said some people were concerned, but they could tell there was still eight to 10 inches of ice beneath them. 

“We just kept walking toward the north,” he said.

The people on his floe were shuttled off in groups by a DNR airboat before the storm finally reached Door County. Anderson said some of the local rescue units said the guides had put people in danger. He said he didn’t feel that way at all and was impressed by the guides’ attention to all the details. 

“To me, it wasn’t reckless or irresponsible to be out on the ice,” Anderson said. “Hindsight is 20/20.” 

USCG Captain Dale Stroschein of Sand Bay Beach Resort and Suites wasn’t one of the guides on the ice that day. He’s been guiding ice anglers for 38 years, but this year, he said he hadn’t been past the crack that always forms like a fault line a little less than two miles out.

“I know if we get the right wind, like yesterday [the Thursday of the rescue], the ice will move,” he said. 

The combination of the offshore wind and the currents whipped up by the incoming storm “blew that whole thing open,” Stroschein said. “I think a big part of that is the change of climate like we’re seeing. We’re not getting the thickness of ice.”

This is the latest start to the ice-fishing season that Stroschein said he’s had in all his years as a guide on the bay. That’s not a statement that would be surprising to Ed Hopkins, assistant state climatologist with the Wisconsin State Climatology Office. The maximum ice coverage, according to satellite surveillance from 1973 to 2020, is 53 percent for all the Great Lakes, so a little more than half is ice-covered during a typical year, with generally more ice in the bay of Green Bay.

“But in the last several years, we’ve had less than 20 percent of all Lake Michigan covered,” Hopkins said.

As of last week, before the current low temperatures arrived, only 12.6 percent of the Great Lakes had ice cover. The smallest amount of ice cover at any time since 1973 was 11.9 percent in 2002. 

“The point is,” Hopkins said, “you do have in the recent past quite a few years when ice on the Great Lakes, and more specifically on Lake Michigan, has a lot less ice.” 

He maintains the 160-year record of ice in and ice out for the lakes in Madison. 

“It’s been trending down to a shorter period of time,” Hopkins said. “That’s [due to the] overall increased temperatures globally.” 

The record for the lateness in the season when the Washington Island Ferry Line has had to use its two ice-breaking boats was Feb. 5 during the early 2000s. 

“We were very close this year to that record,” said Hoyt Purinton, president of the ferry line. “Up until the early part of last week, we could have run any boat in our fleet.” 

Taking out some of the extremes, Purinton said the normal ice-in dates happen during the second week in January, with the third week of March for ice out.

Ice Safety Guidelines 

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources recommends using the following guidelines for safe ice fishing: Generally speaking, fewer than two inches is considered unsafe; three inches is considered OK for a few fishers, well spread out; four inches is fine for general use, but no vehicles; and five inches means that snowmobiles may run safely, provided the ice thickness is uniform.

Various conditions affect ice quality. Clear ice is better than cloudy ice. Be aware of cloudy ice, or ice formed by freezing slush or under windy conditions. New ice is stronger than old ice. River-ice thickness varies according to the strength of the current beneath, and river ice is 15 percent weaker than lake ice.

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