Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Birds, like this lone duck in an opening over a small spring, have had
 a hard time of it with this winter's extended cold, and ice that restricts
their ability to feed.  Their survival rate should improve rapidly in the
coming days and weeks.  Dozens of duck have expired - even along Island
roadways - in the recent weeks, weakened by cold and the inability
to dive for food.

Washington Island, Wisconsin -

After our first 50-degree day of the year yesterday, it seems like winter may finally be ebbing.  Inland locations, even around northern Wisconsin, reported temperatures in the 60s, and in a few cases, 70 degrees.

But, there is lots of snow and ice yet to be melted, and already there are concerns in certain cities and towns of impending flooding due to frozen culverts and streams that jam up with broken ice, backing up an abnormally brisk spring runoff from field and wood.

The Great Lakes commercial navigation season is typically back to a regular pace by now, but that's during the years when there's been scant ice to contend with in shipping lanes.  Although some of the vessels wintered at Bay Shipbuilding already fired up and broke out for their first loads, running the more-or-less navigable route between the Escanaba ore docks and the mills south of Chicago, the U. S. Coast Guard's Ninth District issued a friendly suggestion in a letter of March 7th addressed to the American Great Lakes Ports Association.  We received a copy courtesy of the Port of Green Bay's information release.

Rear Admiral F. M. Midgette, Commander, Ninth Coast Guard District, warned of challenges ahead in his letter addressing shipping concerns and the resumption of Great Lakes shipping.  Available ice breaking assets will include all nine Coast Guard icebreakers ready for deployment, plus one additional icebreaking tug, for a compliment of six of the Bay-Class tugs.   Ninth District anticipates the Canadian Coast Guard will bring an additional icebreaker into the  Great Lakes.

ADM Midgette's letter warned:

   "Breakout will be long and difficult.  Transits in current ice conditions are slow and arduous.  Just this week, a vessel under icebreaker escort took over a week to transit St. Mary's River.  Another vessel required an escort all the way across Lake Erie.  The USCGC HOLLYHOCK encountered ice conditions in the St. Marys River and Straits of Mackinac beyond its capability.  And we expect conditions in Lake Superior that could exceed USCGC MACKINAW's capability.  According to the U. S. National Weather Service, temperatures are expected to remain below normal through March."

His letter ended with this request, due to ice conditions, which I believe is a message unprecedented in recent times:

   "I understand some industry stockpiles are low, and shippers are anxious to resume cargo operations.  In spite of that, we anticipate ice conditions worse that what caused some of you to lay up early in January.  Consequently, I urge you to consider delaying sail dates and curtailing early operations where possible until ice conditions improve."   

If memory serves, following a very cold winter in 1979, numerous lakers came in to the yards for structural repairs due to ice damage.   These are massive vessels, but their steel shell and structure weren't designed for repeated encounters with heavy ice.  There appears now to be more ice breaking vessels available to assist than in previous years, but broken fields of thick ice, wind-driven, can still challenge with unusually deep, dense ice at times.

Our ferry crews operated daily along the edges of heaviest bay ice this winter, with nary a hitch, but that, too, can quickly change as larger fields break into ever smaller pieces and jam up, or stream through, the Door passage.

On the nature trail

Deep snow and colder temperatures have been ideal for snowshoeing this winter, and we've managed to create several interesting loops in the surrounding area.

Some would suggest that snowshoes shouldn't be necessary when the wearer's boot size is 15, but that's a tread-worn joke that doesn't begin to describe the difficulty of tromping in snow several feet deep!   Even with snowshoes, and poles for added stability, this activity can be a challenge.  The reward, however, is a good workout that offers pleasant observations of the outdoor world.

Above the small islands, the bright, red growth of white birches stood against a deep blue sky.  In the topmost branches, scarlet dots of cardinals added further accent.

In the late afternoon hours, my treks have been accompanied by an owl's hooting from deeper in the swampy woods.   Deer tracks show the deer taking the easiest possible trails, sometimes old snowshoe tracks, then jumping from one point to another in belly-deep snow when necessary.  Their activity under cedars shows many more prints where the snow is generally not so deep and food is available on overhead branches, for those deer that can reach.

One afternoon, winding through the woods on my snowshoes, I happened to spot at eye level the bulging bark of a large cedar, what I think may be the start of a super-burl.   The tree itself is about 16 inches in diameter and nearly 35 feet tall, and by my estimation it appears healthy.  How rapidly its bark will continue to expand like a tumorous growth, and whether the tree becomes weakened by this abnormality, will be interesting to follow over time.  I've not generally noticed cedar burls, although they seem to be quite common with other tree species.

And maybe, I'm thinking, I only noticed this one because my eye level was a good 18 inches above the usual height with the help of the snowpack.

-  Dick Purinton

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