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September 1, 2014

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Big freeze means changed landscape on Great Lakes

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John M. Glionna / Los Angeles Times

Patti Heil visits caves covered in ice along Lake Superior near Cornucopia, Minn. A deep freeze this winter has made it so people can walk across the frozen lake and look at the natural ice formations, but it has also hindered shipping in the region.

CORNUCOPIA, Wis. — On some days, Kevin Hunt stands at his Star North gas station in this eye-blink of a town on mighty Lake Superior, marveling at Mother Nature and his own dumb luck. Everywhere he looks: ice and people.

Months ago, many warned him not to invest in a place where fair-weather tourists flee in the fall and the big lake’s waters turn cold and storm-tossed, forcing the 100 or so hardy full-time residents of Cornucopia to hibernate for the winter. He’d be out of business by March, they said.

Then Lake Superior did something it hadn’t done to this degree in decades: It froze.

Freakish cold weather has caused record-setting levels of ice in four of the five Great Lakes. Earlier this month, the lakes were 92.2 percent frozen, nearing the milestone of 94.7 percent set in 1979.

The ice has created both winners and losers. Shippers fear the blockade could prove costly if passages aren’t opened fast enough.

“Mother Nature isn’t ready to give up the ice,” said Mark Gill, director of vessel traffic for the Coast Guard. “In no uncertain terms, it’s been the worst winter on the lakes in 35 years. The ice is thick, the coverage is vast and the weather has been brutally cold over a long period of time. That means it’s going to be a long, difficult spring for many of these shippers.”

Still, ice fishermen are ecstatic, as are scientists who say the buildup will help replenish depleted water levels.

In Cornucopia, the popular sea caves at nearby Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, normally out of reach in the winter, suddenly became very accessible: Visitors can trudge across the bright white landscape to explore the ethereal icy stalactites.

In late January, when the freeze set in, commerce suddenly exploded in the isolated burg locals lovingly call “Corny.” Miles of cars clog local Route 13, causing visitors to wait hours to be shuttled to the lake. Inns have been booked for weeks. And, of course, everyone needs gas.

“We were so busy, we had guys directing traffic outside the station,” said a beaming Hunt.

The freeze of 2014 has graced others as well, including a private pilot who pulled off an emergency landing on Lake Huron. The ice buildup has reduced lake-effect snowfall in recent weeks for winter-weary coastal cities and promises to keep the waters cooler well into summer, delaying evaporation that has sent lakes Huron and Michigan to their lowest water levels since 1918.

The icy lakes are also a boost to wildlife. Eggs of cold-water fish species are better protected in icy waters. And biologists hope a pack of endangered wolves trapped on an island in Lake Superior may be able to safely cross the ice.

But not everyone is warming to the deep freeze. With Great Lakes shipping lanes clogged with ice up to 4 feet thick, the Coast Guard is scrambling to ram passages through the barriers in time for the start of shipping season later this month.

“It’s been a brutal winter — it arrived early and in full force,” said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers’ Association, which represents 17 Great Lakes shipping firms with scores of deep-water vessels.

With normal ice totals for the lakes this time of year at 32 percent, the current year has tripled Nekvasil’s headaches. In the lower Great Lakes, ice cover peaks by mid-February, and in the upper lakes in early March. But whether the ice has peaked this year — or will get worse — is anyone’s guess.

While most foreign-flagged vessels don’t arrive from overseas until spring, shipping on individual lakes has ground to a standstill amid the freeze. “We’ve had trips that normally take two days take seven or more,” Nekvasil said. “Ports are frozen solid; ships can’t get in without being damaged.”

Meanwhile, many East Coast factories anxiously await delivery of iron ore, coal and limestone, much of it via the Great Lakes. The volume of iron ore shipped was down 37 percent in January from the same period last year.

The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that a monthlong delay in freeing up the shipping channels — scheduled for March 25 — could mean $160 million in lost revenue.

The Coast Guard has nine icebreakers. Still, officials worry whether that’s enough.

Scientists say the surfaces of the frozen lakes are anything but a smooth covering of ice. In some areas, pressure from beneath has created large ridges; in others, the surface resembles rolling waves that have frozen in place. There are polynyas, or areas of open water surrounded by ice, and fields of so-called brash-ice — slabs of frozen water that poke out at odd angles.

“It’s a surreal landscape not meant for human habitation,” said George Leshkevich, a scientist at the federal Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich. “I wouldn’t try walking across it — no, not at all.”

On one recent day, there was the sense of a pilgrimage as the ice tourists trooped along like believers scrambling to view a religious icon — old men with gnarled walking sticks, boys on their dads’ shoulders.

And one husband pushed his wife in a wheelchair — on skis.

To meet tourist demand, the Village Inn has doubled its staff, and restaurants in surrounding towns have sent food trucks. Ehler’s, the local hardware store, began delivering hot dogs and bratwurst to crowds waiting for a shuttle ride to the lake.

Not everyone in Corny is happy with the invasion. “Do you have a favorite beach you go to where no one else goes?” asked one woman at the post office. “Well, I had one too. Until recently.”

Park ranger Chris Smith said officials were making sure the ice didn’t give way beneath the weight of thousands of tourists. “We’re not saying it’s safe to go out there,” he said. “You have high risk and low risk. This is low risk.”

For now, normally fierce Lake Superior is being compliant, lying down under her blanket of ice. But visitors know such hospitality cannot last: Because the lake, as they say, will always be the boss.

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