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Mackinac Island prepares for tourists, but ice freezes out Spring

Purchase ImageA freighter slowly makes its way under the Mackinac Bridge and through the ice, seen from the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Biscayne Bay that was breaking up lots of ice in the Straits of Mackinac on Tuesday. / Eric Seals/Detroit Free PressBy Ellen Creager 


ZOOMStaff tries to break up the ice around a Shepler's ferry boat in St. Ignace on Tuesday. It is just an example of the expanse of ice separating the town from Mackinac Island, which is 5 miles away. The persistent ice has prevented ferries from running to the island on schedule, but lines hope to be running by next week. / Shepler's Ferry

It’s not exactly spring on Mackinac Island. After the coldest winter in memory, spring is barely to be found on Mackinac, which usually welcomes its first tourists by May 1.

Not a single ferry is running. The horses are not back. There are 10-foot snowbanks on the island. And one ferry line, Arnold Transit, may not open for business at all.

It’s the latest spring Chris Shepler, president of Shepler’s Ferry, can ever remember. Usually, by mid-April, the island is bustling with preparations.

“I have never seen it like this before, and I am 51,” he said today.

Tourism is Michigan’s second-largest industry, and Mackinac Island is its premiere attraction. Without a warmup soon, Michigan tourism dollars will likely take a hit.

Seasonal ferry service usually begins by April 21, but the ice is so thick in Lake Huron that ferry companies need the U.S. Coast Guard to break ice — and that has not happened as of today. The icebreaker is due to arrive by 8 a.m. Thursday to help clear ice that is up to 3 feet thick in Lake Huron in spots between St. Ignace and the island.

“We can’t do anything till the icebreaker comes,” he said.

Meanwhile, every single thing for the resorts, stores and restaurants to prepare for tourism season must be flown in from St. Ignace, on a constant loop between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. Normally, supplies are shipped by boat the short 5 miles from St. Ignace to the island — paint, wallpaper, food and construction supplies. Not this year. Even seasonal staff is being flown in.

“We are running about five airplanes, with three on freight, and a couple hauling people, and trying to get the Grand Hotel and Mission Point and other resorts open,” said Paul Fullerton, owner of Great Lakes Air in St. Ignace. “The Grand Hotel needs 5,000 pounds of food a day. Today, we had to take some granite countertops over. We just took a group of employees for Mission Point over to the island.”

It is slow going. Each plane holds only five to nine passengers. Great Lakes Air has even summoned two extra planes from Lansing and Beaver Island to assist with freight and passengers until the ice breaks.

From his plane, however, Fullerton can see “there’s a lot of ice out there yet.”

Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel is supposed to open Friday, and Dan Musser III, Grand Hotel president, said that will happen on schedule.

“We have informed guests if Shepler’s is not running as of that day, they can travel to Mackinac Island via Great Lakes Air from the St. Ignace Airport,” he said.

Horses are essential during tourist season on the island, because it allows no motorized vehicles. But they’re not back yet because the ferries are not running. And it’s still cold.

“There are presently 16 horses here, the horses that have been here all winter, but there are supposed to be 600,” said Bradley McCallum, general manager of Mission Point Resort. From his office window, he can see east to the expanse of lawn and Lake Huron beyond. Today, he saw bright sunshine, but also daffodils and crocuses trying to come up amid snowbanks still 10 feet tall.

Ditto for downtown.

“We’ve still got snow piles everywhere, and I can still see ice in the harbor,” said Rob Grenke, liquor manager for Doud’s Market on Main Street. He spent the long, harsh winter on the island.

“Everybody is wondering, when are the boats going to start?” he said. “We heard rumors it would be tomorrow, but now we’re hearing Monday.”

As an added complication, the long financially troubled, 135-year-old Arnold Transit ferry line has suspended service until further notice.

Brent Rippe, CEO of the line, told the Free Press today that Arnold intends to run both freight and passenger service this year if it can quickly reorganize and find an operating partner. He intends the freight service to open first, followed by passenger service, under the Arnold name.

What about horse transport? Arnold traditionally has been the carrier. The horses need to get to the island, fast.

“We understand the concern,” he said. “We are working hard to get an operational program in place.”

One horse owner waiting for news is Dale Gough. He needs to move his 100 horses back to Mackinac Island by May 4 or 5 so they are ready for tourists to ride at Cindy’s Riding Stable and other outlets. During the winter, Gough keeps the animals at his Pickford farm northeast of St. Ignace. Now he needs to get them back to work.

“I would suspect we will get them there one way or another,” he said.

If the Arnold line does not run, he’ll transport the horses in their trailers a few at a time across the lake on another ferry. However, his riding horses are not as critical to Mackinac Island right now as the freight-hauling horses are.

“Before any freight can be transported to the island, the horses have to get there first,” he says.

Even if the Coast Guard clears the ice Thursday and it slowly starts breaking up, ferry companies still will have to break ice for the final half mile to their St. Ignace docks, Shepler says.

Shepler’s will first run its freight boat, which can break ice and hold 150 passengers. Regular ferry boats will start running about 10 days later. Mackinac City service will come later.

“We could be running by the weekend. We just don’t want to make a public announcement. We don’t give anyone a fictitious time frame. We were supposed to be running this past Monday.”

If Arnold Transit fails to resume passenger service, Star and Shepler’s lines can absorb the tourist traffic, Shepler said.

McCallum said Mission Point and other resorts will be ready for tourists next week, ice or no ice, snow or no snow.

“I have every confidence there will be boats running by May 1st,” he said.

Contact Detroit Free Press Travel Writer Ellen Creager, the Michigan Traveler, at ecreager@comcast.net or 313-222-6498. Follow her on Twitter @ellencreager.

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