Surviving Winter on Mackinac Island

These Michiganders have a risky way of staying in touch with the mainland.

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On a cold winter night, a foghorn blast echoes through the streets of Mackinac Island, Michigan. If you listen closely, you will hear something else just beneath the sound of the horn: a sizzling, cracking noise and a rustle of pine branches. This is the song of the ice bridge, of water rippling beneath a glassy surface and wind dancing through the trees lining a path to the mainland.

Mackinac Island overflows with activity in the summer. The eight-mile-around landmass is famous for its lack of motor vehicles and copious amounts of fudge sold downtown on Main Street. No roads will take you there; the only way onto the island is to take an Arnold Line ferry or a puddle-jumper flight from nearby Saint Ignace or Mackinaw City.

Few venture out for a winter trip to Mackinac because the tiny island is right in the middle of the Great Lakes and suffers the consequences of every November gale that rips through the area. That, and the 60 or so inches of snowfall per year keep Mackinac’s population in the low hundreds. But anyone who’s willing to stick out the season and stay on the island for the winter is treated to a calm, ethereal landscape of glassy ice and snowbanks. The ferry service slowly fades away, leaving a quiet island that is essentially cut off from the rest of the world.

At first, it’s a time for celebration. Many of the shops close at the end of October, so friends have more time to gather at one another’s homes enjoying the wealth the island brought in during high season. Families sled through the only town on the island, or ski through Mackinac Island State Park, which makes up the rest of the land. But as the season stretches on, the islanders become restless. Limited access to the mainland’s amenities—like larger grocery stores, movie theaters, shops and restaurants—can make them a little antsy. If they’re lucky, it will be an ice bridge year and they’ll be able to satiate their sporadic wanderlust.

It’s only about three miles across the Straits of Mackinac from the island to mainland but intensely cold northern winters can, depending on the weather, freeze the water’s surface several feet thick, eliminating the option of a boat. However, there is another option. This is where the ice bridge comes in.

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Photo courtesy of Mark Rensel

As residents notice the ice thickening, they get ready to build the passage. Christmas trees left over from the holiday season are stockpiled at British Landing on the west side of the island before a group of men carefully tread out onto the ice, using a pole to smash holes in the surface and a makeshift ruler to measure the ice’s thickness before hitting water. If it’s six inches or more, the trees are carted out and stood up, one by one, into each hole. This line of trees will serve as a marker for the safest walking path across the ice to Saint Ignace.

As the ice bridge is built, a feeling of anticipation sweeps across the island. Not only does it represent the freedom to come and go, but it’s also the one time of year no one needs to rely on boat or plane schedules. The island as they know it is no longer an island—it’s an extension of the mainland. The route becomes a multi-lane highway, used day and night by snowmobilers, walkers, bikers and skiers. Crossing the bridge is a rite of passage for islanders, and everyone always asks, “Is this your first time across?”

However, the islanders know the bridge isn’t completely safe. Unpredictable weather and bitter cold make the ice brittle. Shards wash up on shore and water pools on the surface. According to Mark Rensel and Jenifer Silvernale, makers of the documentary Ice Bridge, once every few years, an accident happens—and sometimes it’s fatal. Snowmobiles can fall through the ice, taking the rider with it. A break or hummock in the surface can launch a snowmobile into the air, throwing the rider. Even just walking across can be dangerous. The thickness of the ice changes nearly every day due to the massive currents running beneath the surface, so even though the trees mark a path, that route may not always be the best way.

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Photo courtesy of Mark Rensel

Knowing this, islanders get even more creative in coming up with precautions and emergency plans. Rensel either carries an open tripod to brace himself if the ice cracks, or two screwdrivers in his pockets so that if he falls through, he can lay flat and use the tools to pull himself up.

As winter wears on, the surface becomes increasingly thin, shrinking from a few feet to just a couple inches. Most decide to stop using the icy highway, but some continue to echo, “just one more time” day after day. At this time in the winter, a crowd of people is often found standing on a bluff overlooking the bridge, watching a lone rider torpedo to shore, chattering with worry about whether or not their friend will make it back.

Eventually the coast guard comes to break up the ice. Just as they watched the last daring few journey across the straits, the islanders gather to watch as the cutter crashes through the ice, doubling back and forth, using the line of trees as a guide. The mood on Mackinac is at once somber and relaxed. Their connection to the outside world has again disappeared, taking the island back into wintry isolation.

Jennifer Billock is an award-winning writer, bestselling author and editor, focusing on culinary travel. She has written for   The New York Times, Yahoo Travel and National Geographic Traveler. Check out her website at www.jenniferbillock.com.

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