Break­ing through the ice

Maryland Independent - - Sports - Jamie Drake jamiedrake­out­doors@out­

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.

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