BIG TRAVERSE BAY - Massive ice floes blown ashore by strong easterly winds tore the roof off a shed, knocked a sauna off its foundation, and piled ice 12 feet deep in beach-front yards along Big Traverse Road late Sunday and early Monday. A few camps and homes sustained minor damage, but appear to have been spared the brunt of the blast.
"If it would have piled three to four feet further inland, it would have done substantially more damage," said Jack Dueweke, Houghton County's emergency manager.
No survey of the total damages has been compiled, but anecdotal reports added only a few broken windows and possible damage to items stored outdoors to the toll. One Hobie-style catamaran appeared to have ridden the wave of ice, ending up perched at an angle on top of the ice shelf.
Mark Plichta, who lives on Little Traverse Bay, just down the coast from the epicenter of the damage, said ice was pushed about 30 to 40 feet up the beach in front of his home, but wider beaches there prevented any serious damage, other than a neighbor's metal fire ring being crushed.
He said the winds were strong when he went to bed Sunday night, but that he didn't notice the ice until he woke up Monday morning and saw it piled about six feet high on the beach.
"I was surprised, the ice is so thick it must have been making noise breaking up, but it didn't wake me up," he said. "It didn't seem like any other weather, just windier."
Dueweke said a woman who called him reported most of the actual buildup occurred in just half an hour.
Plichta said that just a few lots north of his home, the ice had come farther up the beach, and was "getting pretty close to hitting some of the buildings."
He said none of the neighbors he spoke to had ever seen such a thing before, and attributed the ice pileup to the coldest winter in memory, with Lake Superior freezing all the way across and ice remaining into the spring.
"The ice formations are pretty, but a little scary at the same time," he said.
National Weather Service Meteorologist Don Rolfsom, from the Negaunee Township station, said the phenomenon, called ice shelving, is extremely rare on Lake Superior, though it's well-known on some inland lakes in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Prior to this spring, he'd never seen it on Superior, though he said a similar situation happened just a week ago near Menominee on Lake Michigan.
"Ice shelves happen when you get the ice pushing into a confined area by high winds and waves from open water," he said. "There's nowhere for the ice to go but onto the shore, so it's piling up."
Rolfsom said the configuration of Grand and Little Traverse Bays allowed for the ice shelves, but forecasts of decreased winds from different directions predict that a repeat performance is unlikely.
He said steady 20- to 25-mph east-to-northeast Monday winds over Lake Superior drove the ice ashore, while Dueweke cited some winds as high as 30 to 40 mph locally during the shelving.
Rolfsom said it was possible there would be floating ice on the lake into June this year. He said in 1996, the last year the lake froze over completely, a northerly storm packed ice along Lake Superior's southern shore, and it didn't melt in Marquette Harbor until June.
"It depends on rain and temperature, and wind events moving it back and forth help it break up," he said.
Dueweke said with the mounds piled 10 to 12 feet high, he wouldn't be surprised to see the onshore ice last that long this year.