The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

March 12, 2014

Big freeze means changed landscape on Great Lakes

CORNUCOPIA, Wis. — 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 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.

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