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If the big lake seems to have an unusually placid appearance off Duluth’s shores these days, it’s because you’re looking at ice.
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The western tip of Lake Superior has frozen over in December for the first time in recent memory, and that could mean a long season of ice angling that hasn’t been seen in years.
“We were just talking that it’s been something like 17 years since we had a good, long ice fishing season at this corner of Lake Superior,’’ said Russ Francisco, owner of Marine General sporting goods store in Duluth. “This is the most ice I’ve seen in December in years. … I wouldn’t go out yet, but if it stays cold and we don’t get a big wind, people will be out there fishing soon.’’
While ice remains unsafe — with an emphasis on unsafe — as it continues to move around off Duluth, seeing any ice this early has been rare in recent years. Francisco said the earliest safe ice will come in the small bays near the mouths of local rivers like the Lester and the French.
Francisco said in the rare years recently when Lake Superior has partially frozen, it’s usually in February or early March, after months of cold weather. Anglers and ice skaters had a few weeks of good ice in February 2007, for example, before temperatures rose and the ice blew out.
West winds and warm weather could diminish the ice quickly. Francisco warns anglers to stay near shore and not venture off too far, especially until the Great Lakes shipping season ends in mid-January. The ice is still thin enough for Coast Guard cutters to clear the way for the last coal and taconite shipments with little difficulty.
There’s also thickening ice in the channel between Bayfield and Madeline Island, and the Madeline Island Ferry Line is about to close for the season — the first time it’s closed in December since 1985. Locals and visitors hope the ice quickly becomes thick enough to drive on between the island and mainland.
“We island dwellers like it because we get to drive on the ice road, and that’s a lot more convenient. And we haven’t been able to do that much in recent years,’’ said Michael Dalzell, a captain for the ferry line. ‘We’re telling people to get their cars off the island by Friday or Saturday because we probably won’t be running any more by New Year’s.’’
Not only is December ice rare on Superior, but thick ice has become the exception during any winter month.
In several recent winters, the ferry line never did shut down, forced to operate all winter because ice never formed or was too thin for people to drive across.
December’s average temperature at the Duluth office of the National Weather Service has been an unusually cold 9.3 degrees below normal, with a dozen nights below zero and one as cold as 22 below. Tom Lonka, meteorologist intern for the Weather Service in Duluth, said satellite photographs show just the western tip of Lake Superior ice-covered this week.
While there’s not enough ice to make a difference yet, an ice-covered Lake Superior can even affect Northland weather, reducing open water access and diminishing lake effect snowfall.
And increased ice can help keep water from evaporating, leading to more water in the lake next spring. It’s believed the lack of ice cover in recent years has been a big factor in declining lake levels.