Isle Royale National Park Gets Help From Coast Guard Icebreaker For Summer Opening

(Top) Isle Royale National Park's LCM (landing craft, mechanized) following the Coast Guard cutter Katmai Bay through ice in the Keweenaw Waterway on its voyage to Isle Royale. (Bottom) Late April didn't look much like spring on the island this year. NPS photos by Rob Numerick.

It's been a very long winter for parts of the country, and some national parks are facing some extra challenges in getting ready for the upcoming summer season. Few parks, however, have had to call on the Coast Guard for help from an icebreaker as part of their summer reopening.

As the park's name suggests, Isle Royale National Park occupies an island in Lake Superior, and facilities on the island are closed during the ice and snow season. Winter quarters for the core permanent staff are located on the mainland at Houghton, Michigan, and there's a lot to do in reopening a park after a long winter's sleep.

The schedule is even tighter this year with some extra work on tap, including a major energy conversion project scheduled for start-up in less than four weeks. That work couldn't begin until equipment and materials arrived on site, and those items, along with a large order of supplies for an employee dorm, were stranded on the mainland.

The culprit was the unusually long winter, and the resulting ten miles of ice in the Portage Canal leading from park headquarters to the open waters of Lake Superior. Any delays in schedules for these projects would be costly, so the Coast Guard was asked to assist.

A Coast Guard Cutter With a National Park Connection

They dispatched the icebreaker USCGC Katmai Bay, which routinely performs icebreaking duties on Lake Superior, and the cutter led the park’s LCM (Landing Craft Mechanized) to clear water on April 23. The assist from the Coast Guard to the NPS even offered a little bit of irony: the icebreaker shares its name with a location in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska.

Getting there may or may not have been half the fun on this voyage, but the challenges for park crews were far from over once they reached the island in late April. The eight-man "opening crew" found frozen harbors and a 30 to 48-inch snowpack around facilities. The crew had to deal with 12-foot drifts extending from building roofs to the ground, and while checking for downed power lines, one of the workers was able to ski over the top of one of the park maintenance buildings.

Was winter finally over, now that April was nearly a memory? The answer was probably not a welcome one. On their second day on the island, the crew was greeted with about ten inches of new snow and blizzard conditions. After two days of shoveling and hard work, the generators were up and running and lift stations were being dug out. The weather has improved somewhat, but it's essential for any early season visitors to do some serious checking on current conditions before considering a trip to the island.

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Lots of snow and ice remained in harbors on the island. NPS photo.

Winter Conditions Are Hanging On

A press release from the park on April 30 noted that "campers and visitors to Isle Royale National Park should be prepared for winter camping conditions to the island for the next few weeks. Most docks are icebound and shore access is limited due to slowly melting ice shelves ringing the archipelago."

It may sound like a chance for some late season fun in the snow, but park Superintendent Phyllis Green cautioned that "the spring snow is rotten, so even snowshoe travel is compromised and strenuous."

Among the challenges for any early season visitors to the island are a lack of potable water at entry points or campgrounds, and no gas or diesel sales are currently open for motorboats.

Early May Visitors Need to be Prepared

"Our primary concern," Green continued, "is that visitors understand what they are facing if they visit the island in early May. These conditions naturally limit emergency response, so visitors need to be prepared for a true wilderness experience with a focus on self-reliance and safety. We will monitor marine band radio, but remember there is little to no phone coverage on or around the island."

The park staff also advises visitors who have trips to the island planned during the next few weeks to check ahead with their ferry service for updated schedule information. In short, the park staff is doing a herculean job in getting the park open as soon as possible, but they can't hasten the arrival of summer, or simply wish away all of that snow and ice.

Unfortunately, the forecast for today doesn't offer much help. It calls for several inches of new snow and then possibly a snow/freezing rain mix.

If you plan to visit in the next couple of weeks, be sure you really are prepared—and please don't expect the Coast Guard to send an icebreaker.