It's a lifeline for the 800 or so year-round residents of Sugar Island, on the St. Marys River just east of Sault Ste. Marie: the car ferry that every runs the 1,200-foot trek every half hour to and from the mainland — to school, to work, to the supermarket, for health care.
But a mixed-up winter of deep freezes and warm-ups has contributed to major ice jams on the river, bringing the ferry boat to a near-halt in recent weeks. To say it's disrupted islanders' lives would be like saying it was a little chilly in Michigan at the end of last month.
"We've got a ton more ice this year than we've ever had," said Amber Horner, who has lived on Sugar Island all of her 30 years.
That means the ferry has run very intermittently, at unpredictable times, sometimes only once or twice a day — or not at all. Walking or snowmobiling across isn't an option.
"Residents would take one boat off the island, and then not know when they would be able to come back," Horner said. "We have a little boy who's 2. We've spent $200 on motels on the mainland. Then you've got to eat out, and you have to worry about your pets at home. Thank God we have friends on the island who could check in on our pets."
On Wednesday, children who live on the island couldn't make it home from Sault Ste. Marie schools, as the school bus couldn't make the crossing. Island resident Jennifer McLeod said her 11-year-old granddaughter had to stay with close friends on the mainland because of it.
"Everyone who lives and works on the island and has to get back and forth, we all prepare for this. We all have contingency plans," said McLeod, a tribal council member with the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians.
But what island residents are dealing with this year is unprecedented, said resident Gregory Rowell.
"My wife and I have lived full-time on Sugar Island for 18 years," he said. "We are both retired now, but we worked on the mainland for 16 years and, between the two of us, we only missed four days due to ice issues with the ferry."
Horner said she couldn't make it to her job on the mainland for three days just last week.
Island resident Amy Swanderski said she's been unable to make or keep doctor's appointments, not knowing if she could make it back home.
"I've also had frozen pipes for three weeks, and no plumber is willing to come over due to the unpredictable ferry schedule caused by the current ice issue."
Ice problems this winter aren't unique to Sugar Island. Ice damage to a causeway, expected to cost millions to fix, indefinitely closed the Bluewater Ferry from Sombra, Ontario, to Marine City on the St. Clair River earlier this month. On the same river, the ferry between Walpole Island, Ontario, and Algonac has also been shut down because of thick river ice. And five ships were stuck in the ice in the Straits of Mackinac in recent days.
Some Sugar Island residents question how, and how much, the U.S. Coast Guard has provided assistance.
"We did not get the cooperation from the U.S. Coast Guard that we normally get," said Sugar Island Township Supervisor Rick Roy.
Peter Paramski, director of the Eastern Upper Peninsula Transportation Authority that operates the ferry service for Sugar, Neebish and Drummond islands in the St. Marys River, attributed the problems this year to a variety of factors.
"First and foremost, Mother Nature is throwing us a curveball," he said. "We had 20 below temperatures in late December and into January. It's an extremely severe, abnormal winter."
Another compounding factor is a failed ice boom, a floating barrier to hold back ice, in the Soo Harbor just north of the St. Marys River and Sugar Island ferry docks. The Coast Guard broke ice in Soo Harbor last week, assisting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with the broken boom, "even though the shipping season had ended" at the Soo Locks on Jan. 15, McLeod said.
"All that ice from the harbor came down and got hung up on the ferry docks," she said. "The Coast Guard created this mess, and abandoned people to their own devices."
Added Swanderski, "It is comparable to someone pushing snow from the sides of the road to the middle, and not accepting responsibility of removing it."
Conditions this winter have led to "a lot of different interests and users of the waterways to balance," said Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Sean Murphy, chief of waterways management and public affairs officer at Coast Guard Sector Sault Ste. Marie.
"This year, we're seeing colder temperatures than the past couple of years; then it would warm up really quick, and that ice would dislodge from shore," he said. The ice is then flowing to the choke point between Sugar Island and Mission Point, he said.
The Coast Guard's 140-foot ice-breaking tug Biscayne Bay spent seven hours on Thursday breaking ice near the Sugar Island Ferry, then another three hours on Friday morning, before heading for the Straits of Mackinac to assist with multiple stuck freighters.
"The hope was that, with the wind shifting to coming from the north, that and the current would start to move some of that ice downriver," Murphy said, adding that it seems to be working.
On its way to help the ships in the Straits, the Biscayne Bay suffered a failure to one of its main diesel engines, and is now undergoing repairs in St. Ignace "and is out of service for the foreseeable future."
Some island residents were further miffed that the Coast Guard's 240-foot, heavy icebreaker Mackinaw was docked in Sault Ste. Marie for two days last week as the Sugar Island ferry was largely stuck less than a mile away. The Mackinaw took two days for "refueling and logistics" before heading to the St. Clair River and Lake St. Clair, to break ice and help alleviate a risk of emergency flooding in areas there, Murphy said.
"We do have a prioritization for our ice-breaking, which is first for search and rescue; the next one being emergency community needs, which would include an immediate need for food, heating oil, fuel; then flood mitigation, and then facilitating navigation," he said. "We would assist the Sugar Island ferry were it to fall into an exigent community circumstance. But the entire time this winter, the ferry has been able to run to some degree."
Island residents have reached out to U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, and Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, for assistance. A township meeting has been scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at the island's community center.
Residents are also helping each other. Those making a mainland trek on one of the intermittent ferry trips often are picking up groceries and other supplies for neighbors. An island resident who works in excavating, Eric McKerchie, and some crew used their heavy equipment to spend more than a full day scooping and removing ice from the water at the edge of the ferry docks, enabling the closest the island has come to a normal ferry schedule in weeks on Sunday. As McKerchie and crew worked, island residents brought them soup, sandwiches, bread and cookies — and their thanks.
"The people on Sugar Island are amazing; they are resilient," McLeod said. "They will take care of things themselves if they have to."
Island residents know what many will think.
"We know many will say, 'You choose to live on an island; it's your problem,' " said island resident Anthony Andary. "Sugar Island, Drummond Island and Neebish Island are a significant part of the tax base of Chippewa County."
Noted Horner, "It's all expected when you live on Sugar Island, but this year is the worst I've seen."
While conditions have improved, residents on the St. Marys River continue to walk a tightrope into spring, according to Paramski: If it's too cold, another icy freeze-up will occur. If it warms up, but not enough for a big melt-off, chunks of ice will break off into the river and jam up near the docks again.
"I'm hoping this is behind us, and we don't have to deal with this anymore," he said. "But we could be."
Contact Keith Matheny: 313-222-5021 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @keithmatheny.