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Big freeze means changed landscape on Great Lakes

The tourist-enticing sea caves along Lake Superior, normally out of reach this time of year, are still accessible.
The tourist-enticing sea caves along Lake Superior, normally out of reach this time of year, are still accessible.
Published Mar. 13, 2014

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, Wis., 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. Last week, 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 all the lakes, which combined hold one-fifth of the planet's fresh water.

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 strands that hang like stalactites in the sandstone caves.

In late January, when the freeze set in, commerce suddenly exploded in the isolated burg locals lovingly call "Corny." On weekends, 20,000 tourists flood the community, packing the only restaurant and bar. 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. "Doormen let only the number of people in who came out. There was a 40-foot line to the toilets. I'm considering a revolving door for the ladies' room."

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.

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.

Not everyone is warming to the deep freeze. 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.