Portage Lake, Canal packed with thick ice

HOUGHTON – The extremely cold temperatures of January and February froze Portage Lake and the Portage Canal to depths not seen in years.

And with the continuing colder-than-normal temperatures, many activities on the bodies of water could be delayed beyond their usual start times.

Phyllis Green, superintendent of Isle Royale National Park, said the park’s Ranger III ferry is in dry dock in Wisconsin for its five-year maintenance. The plan is for it to return to its mooring site at the park headquarters in Houghton the first week in May, but when it actually returns will depend on the ice situation on Lake Superior and the canal.

“We’ll have to see how it goes,” she said.

Green said staff and equipment usually go out to the park before campers and visitors, but this year they will be delayed.

“We normally try to get there the second week in April,” she said.

Last year, ice on Lake Superior delayed the first trip to the island until the last week in April, Green said, adding that occasionally the U.S. Coast Guard is asked to break a path in the ice so the Ranger can get to the island.

Visitors are usually taken to the island for the first time about Memorial Day, Green said.

When an ice breaker will get to Portage Lake and the canal is not known, according to Mark Gill, Coast Guard director of vessel traffic services at Sault St. Marie.

Although clearing a path for the Ranger III is on the Coast Guard’s list of jobs, Gill said ice breakers are currently working to clear ice on Lake Superior, which is thicker than it’s been in decades, with depths of 30 to 60 inches. There are also wind-created “stacks” up to 14 feet high.

“This has been a monumental year,” he said.

Because of the efforts on Lake Superior, Gill said it’s uncertain when work can start on breaking ice on Portage Lake and the shipping canal.

“We’re probably three to four weeks away from that,” he said.

Gill said the Coast Guard station at Dollar Bay has recorded ice on the shipping canal of 24 to 28 inches, with some spots as deep as 36 inches.