Monday, February 21, 2011


Detroit Harbor, Washington Island -

The Winter Festival drew a number of people from off the island, for ice fishing, to see the Island Players version of Our Town, and to enjoy both indoor (chili cook-off, bingo) and outdoor activities.   It was also an opportunity for Islanders to kick up their winter bootheels.

Saturday afternoon a large crowd assembled to celebrate a birthday party (not Lincoln or Washington) on Detroit Harbor and circled around a bonfire with food, drink and camaraderie.   Youngsters bounced, skidded and resisted centrifugal force as a four-wheeler towed them in a large satelite dish, about 8-ft. diameter, encircling the ice party.  The rumble of the metal dish over the hard, sometimes irregular ice surface, could be heard from afar nearly all afternoon, until fireworks and low sun signaled a slowdown to the afternoon's events.

The Island Lions members organized many of the past week's ice fishing activities, as they do each winter, but this party was for Lee Franzen's birthday, and it drew as many as 100 persons, with some 40 cars and pickups parked nearby, plus 4-wheelers and snowmobiles.  

Further out on the harbor,  steadfast ice fishermen tried their luck ice fish in the 20-degree weather.   Large northern pike and perch had been caught throughout the week, with others bobbing after lawyers on the west side.  Saturday's weather was ideal for this social event on the ice, as well as for fishing.

The drama Our Town played Friday evening, a Saturday matinee, and again Saturday evening, with roles filled by local actors with a range of acting experience from first-time to seasoned veterans.  This was an excellent production, theater in-the-round at the Trinity fellowship hall with island townsfolk surrounding the performers.  There were memorable, standout performances.

Ice Access

I couldn't help but think how fortunate it was that the temperature had dropped since last Thursday when accumulated snow melted so rapidly that one fisherman described the swirl of meltwater running down his fishing hole as resembling a "toilet flushing."  The ice returned to a glare surface overnight with Friday's return of high pressure and colder air, and the mucky, rutted shoreline where fishermen entered and exited the ice froze hard over night.  It made the transition from Main Road's blacktop to the harbor ice once again negotiable.   Had temperatures remained above freezing through this weekend's activity, the muddy ruts would have worked even deeper under pickup tires, eventually becoming impassable.  Fresh access routes might have been created further down the beach.

With the Island's annual winter fish derby, plus private social gatherings on the ice as witnessed Saturday afternoon, drawing people of all ages, the importance decent public access to the harbor is underscored.  
At one time, there were many access points at various island shoreline locations, but many of these have now vanished, absorbed as private property, built upon, or otherwise no longer maintained by the Town.

The south end of Main Road remains the most heavily used water access in winter, but it's also a point for viewing in warm weather months.  If the Town has in the past prompted the Department of Natural Resources for permission to add aggregate to this stretch of beach and been refused, this past week and weekend's activities should encourage further attempts at access improvement.

Several loads of coarse stone, approximately 16-ft. wide, might actually reduce traffic impact over the present day "driver's choice."   As an inviting, safe access to Detroit Harbor, it would not only be winter sportsmen who would benefit.  There are occasional loads of materials headed to Detroit Island that are trucked over the ice.  Detroit Island's property owners, who ask for little and receive less direct return for their township taxes, like to occasionally snowmobile, cross country ski, or drive across the ice for a winter weekend retreat at their cabins.  Such access improvement would assist them, too.

While it may not be a given right to drive motorized vehicles across harbor ice, it is important to the island, to our limited winter economy, and for the sport and recreation of its citizens.  We estimate daily usage this winter as 50 vehicles (on the low side), to well over 100 passages from road to beach on a busy Saturday when fishing pressure increases.  We've looked out the window at midnight (and even 3 a.m.) and observed headlights out on the ice (probably not fishing!).   So, we would consider usage of this Main Road access as high on a daily basis, and nearly around the clock.

Low Lake Levels

Adding to the problem of ice access is the wider beach brought on by a very low Lake Michigan.  The current level is within inches of the record low, despite last summer having shown signs of a gradual, two-year rise.  The amount of exposed beach and harbor bottom is considerable.  Shallow areas utilized by bass and other fish for spawning in the early months of summer are exposed.  I walked over frozen mud flats today, routes never possible when water levels were higher.

Already this winter's cover of bay ice has, for all purposes, broken up and is on the move.  The fact is, it had never set up, except in sections of the upper bay.  (The lower bay, south of Chambers Island, was solid, shore to shore, by early January.)  There has been continual shifting of the ice fields with the winds, aided by large lake vessels still sailing to the Escanaba ore docks through early February, then heading south in the bay to Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay.   Already, as of this week, several lake freighters already fitted out will resume their regular runs from Escanaba to Indiana's steel harbors.  It is highly upper Green Bay's ice will ever re-freeze this winter.   Lack of an ice cover over upper Green Bay waters also allows evaporation from those same waters, not insignificant over many square miles of surface.   With the snow pack in the Lakes Michigan-Huron watershed currently negligible, we can only hope for more snow accumulation and heavy spring rains to help restore the supply.

At some point as ferry operators, we may become concerned that our dredging projects of 2007-08 may not be sufficient for unrestricted ferry access to landings.                               - Dick Purinton

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