Breaking through the ice
We live in a fairly large neighborhood, and over the years have gotten to know most of the families living on our street.
It’s a good place to live, where neighbors are friendly and help each other out. There are a lot of tall pine trees in our neighborhood, and when a big storm rolls through, there’s a good chance a few will fall, blocking driveways and streets. Without even picking up the phone, chainsaws start to buzz and the mess is cleaned up before the weather has even cleared.
A few nights ago, we got together with some of those neighbors for a little celebration before their children went back to college. Their daughter is studying architecture and their middle son is attending the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, both fine young people who have bright futures ahead of them. The evening was an enjoyable one, with the older generation regaling the young- er guests with stories from the past and a lot of debate about current events and politics.
We didn’t have a full house though, because their oldest son was missing. He is deployed right now as a U.S. Coast Guard officer serving on the USCGC Polar Star, an ice breaker, which at the time of the party was en route to Antarctica for its annual patrol, Deep Freeze 2017. Right now, the sturdy cutter has reached its destination and is docked at the ice pier in McMurdo Sound.
Coast Guard cutters have been deploying to Antarctica for over 50 years to support our nation’s Antarctic Program and the National Science Foundation. Ever y Januar y, an icebreaker smashes a channel through 9 to 12 miles of sea ice in McMurdo Sound, some of it more than 10 feet thick. This allows for resupply ships to bring food and fuel to the staff and scientists at McMurdo Station so they can make it through the winter.
It may come as a surprise to you that of the many hundreds of ships in the U.S. Naval Academy and U.S. Coast Guard, we have only two icebreakers in ser vice. The Polar Star is over 40 years old, but it’s still the toughest icebreaker we have.
It’s capable of motoring along and continuously breaking through six feet of ice as it goes. When the situation gets more challenging, it can smash through up to 21 feet of ice by backing the ship up and ramming forward. The newer cutter, the USCGC Healy, can’t break through ice that thick.
As a nation with far-flung military and scientific interests, as well as our Arctic presence via Alaska, it was quite a shock to me that we only have two such crafts. The Coast Guard is working on a polar icebreaker acquisition program, so let’s hope that the new administration’s focus on militar y needs includes more icebreaking resources.
At times in recent years, the United States has had to outsource icebreaking ser vices from foreign vessels, due to scheduling and maintenance challenges.
Several years ago, the Polar Star underwent a major overhaul putting it out of commission for a few years, while its sister ship, the Polar Sea, had been retired from service. Other countries besides the United States have Arctic and Antarctic interests and major icebreakers and they supported the vital annual resupply mission to McMurdo Station when no U.S. ships were available.
In 2012 and 2013, when the Polar Star was undergoing its overhaul, the National Science Foundation chartered the icebreaker Vladimir Ignatyuk from Russia’s Murmansk Shipping Company to do the job.
Now if you think icebreakers are just for the waters in the polar extremes, you’d be mistaken. In fact, about a week ago, the Mar yland Department of Natural Resources deployed one of its vessels to Smith Island to break up the two-inch thick ice that was blocking the route to Crisfield Harbor. The J. Millard Tawes is one of four local icebreakers on call that can break up ice on the Chesapeake Bay.
Which reminds me of a colorful story I once heard from a boat captain who grew up on Smith Island. While we have had rather mild winters in this part of the country as of late, Marylanders were dealing with one heck of a winter in 1977. We had 58 days of sub-freezing weather from late December through mid-February. In some places on the Bay, the ice grew more than two feet thick.
As the ice grew thicker and thicker, and high winds pushed it on to shore, in some places it piled up in walls higher than 20 feet. Watermen were land-bound, and the communities on Smith Is- land were in a pickle. The ice grew thick beyond the breaking capabilities of local icebreakers.
I recommend you Google the subject to get a better perspective on the situation. You’ll find pictures of people walking on the ice a mile from shore, to include standing under the Bay bridge in the middle of the Bay.
For a period of about eight weeks, the hundreds of men, women and children on Smith Island were completely iced in. They didn’t even have school during that time because their teacher lived in Crisfield and couldn’t travel to the island to hold class.
It was a true emergency, and the governor had supplies transported to the island by helicopter. The rub, however, was that the supplies were the just basics — fuel, food and water. If you were a thirsty islander maybe interested in more spirited drinks, you were out of luck. This is where we get to colorful part of the story.
If you know anyone from Smith Island, you probably appreciate their sense of self-reliance. Presented with the challenge of solid ice between the island and Crisfield, no available beer and a lack of gasoline, some locals did the best they could with the situation at hand.
For this particular resident it meant riding a motorcycle across the ice to Crisfield, about nine miles, to fill up a backpack with cans of beer. How’s that for local color? That’s the story as I heard it, straight from the horse’s mouth. Although I do have to wonder what kind of beer it was.
We don’t get the chance to experience much ice here in Mar yland, especially here in the southern region. Deep Creek Lake is one of the places where ice can get thick enough sometimes to make ice fishing possible, although it’s an undertaking that one should approach with much caution.
Just last weekend a couple of fishermen fell through the ice at Deep Creek Lake and were rescued by a good Samaritan who happened to be passing by. Not everyone is so lucky. Be extra careful out there.