Winter wonderland: Siberia settles on Leelanau

By Mike Buhler and Jacob Wheeler
Sun editors

Folks around town can’t exactly remember the last time the surface of Big Glen Lake froze by early January. Some say 15 years, some say 50. Captain Bob Smith at the Sportsman Shop says Big Glen doesn’t typically freeze until Martin Luther King, Jr., weekend in late January. Regardless, by Jan. 2, there were ice shanties on Big Glen (Little Glen had them by mid-December). A week later, the hum of snowmobiles could be heard from Glen Craft Marina.

This winter has been one of the whitest and coldest in decades, thanks to heavy snowfall that began in mid-November and may blanket us until April, and thanks to the polar vortex that dropped temperatures to below zero during the first week of January. According to the Leelanau Enterprise, the county’s paper of record, we’re on pace this season to eclipse the record of 231 inches of snow, which was recorded in 1995-96. Granted, records have only been kept since 1955.

The big chill of 2013-14 has been great for winter sports. The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is groomed for cross-country skiing — both classic and skate — between Glen Arbor and the Dune Climb, making it one of this area’s most popular year-round attractions (visit our website for updated Heritage Trail ski conditions). Trails within the National Lakeshore offer hikes and snowshoe excursions that are both athletic and stunningly beautiful. The ice rink at the Glen Arbor tennis courts is open to skaters and hockey players, alike. Chairlifts at The Homestead have been humming up the mountain since before Christmas — not so at Sugarloaf, the albatross in the middle of Leelanau County, which continues to be held ransom by out-of-state delinquents and crooks (read about that here). And mid-February “Winterfests” in Glen Arbor and Empire will offer folks the opportunity to catch perch, eat chili and jump through a hole in the ice and into South Bar Lake. Yikes! If you really want to know how cold the water is, check out Michigan State University’s Lake Michigan surface temperature gage.

All these winter sports opportunities have been a boon for Crystal River Outfitters, which rents skis, snowshoes and ice skates. “The key to surviving a Northern Michigan winter is getting out and embracing it,” says co-owner Katy Wiesen. “This year’s early winter definitely started winter business off much sooner than expected. The snowy conditions give visitors even more of a reason to come up north knowing that there are more recreational opportunities.” Read the full interview with Wiesen here.

Big Glen Lake’s early freeze prompted an outpouring of nostalgic memories from Glen Arbor’s elders. Rich Quick grew up in the white house across from Oak Street and once owned the Amoco station. His mother married Art Sheridan, and they ran Art’s Tavern for many years. As a boy, Quick remembered skating up and down the Crystal River between 675 and Riverfront Pizza. The kids would build a fire right on the ice, warm themselves by it, and get back to skating.

Quick also remembers harvesting ice from Big Glen Lake until the 1950s by what is now Glen Craft Marina on Lake Street. He sometimes cut the ice, and other times it was his job to fill the spaces between the icehouse wall and the ice with sawdust. One time, he says, Bill Barratt’s Ford tractor fell through the ice as it brought back some freshly cut blocks. They built a tripod, snagged it on the first try with a grappling hook, but when they got it to the surface it lost buoyancy and they couldn’t get it out. What started as a small group of men on the recovery mission grew to scores of gawkers — each of whom had an opinion, but none with an answer. Eventually they got the tractor out, but Rich wouldn’t tell us the secret as to how. Fritz Barratt, Bill’s nephew, still lives on the family plot at Port Oneida, and remembers that his cousins next door kept an ice house in what is now the garage.

Go further back in time to the 1920s and ‘30s, and Gilbert Warnes, Sr., ran a virtual community center in what’s now the Arbor Light building on Lake Street. The business was visited by not only the Glen Arbor town folk but also folks from surrounding villages and even the Manitou Islands. With horse and buggies, on wooden bicycles, or in the new fad of the time — the automobile — they would frequent the general store to satisfy practical needs: filling up on gasoline or purchasing 16-16-foot ice blocks which were dragged off the Glen Lakes in the winter and stored in salt to maintain their low temperature.

The building also hosted community dances, and that’s where Gil, Jr., met Elsie, a local girl whom he met and kissed for the first time when they starred opposite each other in a play at Maple City-Glen Arbor School. In the play “was the first time we were married,” Gil, Jr., told the Sun for a story we published in 2001. Sadly, Elsie passed away on Dec. 17, at the age of 88, as the great winter of 2013-14 was just gaining force.