Across The Ice
Don Whitley looks out of the window of his room at the Jacobetti Home for Veterans in Marquette, Michigan and comments on the clear, cold February weather.
I think maybe someone could do it this year.
He is talking about the continued cold the region has experienced in January and February and about a walk across the ice of northern Lake Michigan he and his brother undertook 40 years ago to the month.
It was a rare time where we had both stopped drinking and so we felt physically up to a challenge, he said.
Don, and his late brother Ivan, in their mid 20's at the time, became the first known people to walk in a direct route from Charlevoix to Beaver Island, some 25 miles out in the lake.
Plenty of people have crossed the ice up to the north near Good Heart where there is less of the lake to cross, but it's a little more difficult to find the right conditions to do it straight across, according to Don.
It was an especially cold winter in 1963 and the brothers had heard there was ice all the way across to the Island from pilots who flew between the mainland and Island. Despite the fact that Ivan had several small children at home, the two found themselves standing on the shore of Lake Michigan, near the current Charlevoix water filtration plant, early on Sunday, February 24th.
After a picture was taken proving the two were woefully underdressed for such an endeavor, they set out across the ice. Don says he was wearing quilted underwear under dress slacks, a thin quilted, nylon jacket and rubber boots with felts. He had no hat with him, by the way. Ivan was dressed in a similar fashion, but did have a thin knit hat and scarf.
At one point, Ivan gave me the scarf and I wrapped it around my head. It was pretty cold that day with a subzero wind chill, Don said.
They started the walk roped together, but quickly discarded the rope after realizing the ice was plenty thick. They used a compass to determine their direction of travel until they could see the island. Ivan had consulted the Beaver Island Boat Company on the best direction of travel.
The February 28th edition of the Charlevoix Courier gave the following account of the walk according to the brothers:
They ran into knee-deep snow which was crusted over about two hours out of Charlevoix which made the going rough and slowed them down. In most places the ice was quite rough though they did walk over some blue ice. The toughest part of the hike came at the end where the ice had broken away from the southeast shoreline of Beaver Island, drifted out, and then was windrowed as it was blown onto the shore. Tired and weary, they had about one and a half hours of this at the end of the trip which took them just eight and a half hours.
The brothers progress across the ice was monitored by local pilot Joe McPhillips, who flew his usual route to and from the island that day.
As the pair approached the southern shore of Beaver Island, near Cable Bay, they could see a bonfire on the beach. A group of locals had traveled down the Island by snowmobiles to greet them as they came a shore.
They waited for us to get all the way to land before they offered us assistance, I want to be clear on that, Don stresses.
Without much celebration on shore, the two were taken by snowmobile north up to St. James. The brothers were treated to a dinner at the Shamrock Bar in their honor by the Civic Association.
According to Don, I remember Ivan and I were thinking how ironic it was that the one time that the drinks would have been on the house for us at the Shamrock, we weren't drinking.
Over a decade later, their feat would be repeated by some of their kin. Second cousins Ed and John Whitley and their friend Dave Swanson, all of Charlevoix, crossed in the month of February in1977. They also had no trouble making the crossing, except for going a bit out of their way as they approached shore.
We made a mistake by not following our compass after we could see land. An optical illusion led us to walk several miles more than we should have, Ed said. Their crossing took them a little over ten hours. According to Ed, they had planned on continuing the walk onto Naubinway in the Upper Peninsula the next day, however, upon reaching the island they learned the Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw had broken open the shipping lane in that direction that very day.
Dennis Whitley, Marquette Michigan (son of Ivan, nephew of Don)
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