Out, See, Go: Mid-winter (ice) break

By Chris Engle, contributor

About this time four years ago, I was aboard the Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw, crushing through the frozen Straits on assignment for the Gaylord Herald Times.

The morning mission was not led by the Coast Guard. Instead, a group called Employer Support of Guard and Reserve (ESGR) had commandeered the vessel for the special task of giving employers a chance to experience a day in the life of their enlisted workers. ESGR calls these trips “Boss Lifts” so bosses can earn a greater appreciation for their employees who take leave to serve their country.

The 3-hour tour took myself and a dozen others from the dock at St. Ignace out into the Straits, under the Mackinac Bridge and halfway to the island. All the way we busted through a sheet of ice six inches to a foot thick. The sound of that ice snapping and grating against the hull is something I’ll never forget. If you’re bothered by fingernails on a chalkboard, this is about 10 times worse.

The whole trip I was taking pictures for the paper, peering over the bow and pausing occasionally to scrape frozen water droplets off my camera lens. Air temperatures were somewhere around zero and the breeze from the ship’s steady clip through the Straits made my eyes water and cheeks burn.

Midway through the trip I made my way up to the wheelhouse to catch a break from the elements. The term “wheelhouse” is a misnomer – the Coast Guard calls this part of the ship the “bridge,” which could get confusing when you’re busting ice under an actual bridge – because there is no steering wheel on this boat.

Instead, a young crew member was guiding the Mackinaw with a joystick, the same kind you’d find on your typical arcade Pac-Man machine. Control of the 240-foot behemoth rested in his fingers. I have trouble steering a little yellow circle across a screen – granted I am being chased by ghosts.

Naturally, I asked if I could drive. He politely refused. When you find yourself in that type of situation, always ask.

I never needed the elastic wristbands I’d brought along to relieve sea sickness, or the Dramamine I’d considered taking before the trip. The only motion on the boat was an occasional lurch onto thicker ice before it sank back down again into the churning lake – the thing can break through several feet of ice with ease. The scenery was enough to keep my mind off the movement.

I’ve been a fisherman all my life and there have only been a few instances where I’ve gotten nauseous on the water, and almost all of them involved Lake Huron.

Salmon fishing off the coast of Alpena, about 80 miles south of the Straits, sometimes came with a turn in the weather. The calm lake can quickly churn into 3- and 4-foot waves, which toss a 16-foot aluminum boat around like a bathtub toy. I do not recommend it.

There was another trip many years ago in Munising Bay on Lake Superior – a Pictured Rocks sightseeing trip in my uncle’s fiberglass boat.

Within minutes the weather turned from fair to fearsome. The sky darkened and the lake turned black. Tour boats were heading for the docks and urging us over the marine radio to do the same. Waves were breaking over the open bow and my brother and I bailed water as my uncle turned tail to steer us to shore. Our boat rode the capping waves like a surfboard and we survived the trip.

There’s a saying that goes “A bad day on the water beats a good day at work.” That is a lie.

I have a better saying: No fish is worth dying over. It works all year long and applies to wretched waves and dangerously thin ice. They’re good words to live by if you want to keep living.

I was thinking about that ice breaker trip this weekend while I cleared my driveway of two feet of drifted snow. Forty mile per hour winds had swept corn husks from the field to the north into my yard and they twirled around in the air like New Years confetti. The two-hour chore sent me into a whirl of daydreams.

My moustache froze as my snow blower chugged through the deep snow, and all I could think about was how I’d rather be standing on the frigid bow of the Mackinaw just to hear the splash of open water under my feet.

Just before he bit Mayor Jonathan Freund on the ear, a groundhog in Sun Prairie, Wis. did not see his shadow two weeks ago, suggesting an early spring. Let’s hope he’s right.

– Chris Engle is a stay-at-home dad, an avid outdoorsman and outdoor columnist for the Gaylord Herald Times. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.