Big Mac is easily one of Michigan’s most famous bridges, but do you know about Mackinac Island’s other, lesser-known bridge? The “Ice Bridge” is a natural pathway to Mackinac Island that forms each winter, as long as the conditions are right.
If the wind is calm and the temperatures dip below zero for enough nights in a row, a solid plane of ice forms on the waters of Lake Michigan. Each year, locals organize a path on this ice stretching from St. Ignace to Mackinac Island.
Robert and Sherri, owners of Peninsulas, decided to make their trek across the ice bridge and had an incredible time! Robert tells us more about their trip in the quotes below.
“We were fortunate enough to come out and visit some friends of ours on the island to see this phenomenon for ourselves! We met our friends, the Douds, right in St. Ignace on the edge of the straits. Nicole and Andrew Doud own a couple of businesses on Mackinac Island and spend their winters living on the island, and they came over to pick us up in St. Ignace on their snowmobiles.”
“The ice bridge forms when the ice coverage on the Great Lakes is usually in the 70 to 80 to 90 percent range, and this particular year it was over 90 percent frozen… It is exactly what it sounds like; it’s an ice bridge. We were riding snowmobiles in places where people would be picking up ferries to go to Mackinac Island! It’s about a five-mile trip from St. Ignace straight across, and you end up landing over at British Landing on Mackinac Island.”
This bridge forms after ferry services stop going to and from the island and after the winter weather becomes too dangerous for flight. Generally, the bridge is at its strongest — and therefore safest — somewhere between January and February. However, it’s always best practice to consult the local coast guard, fire department, and meteorologists to get a good idea of how safe the ice is before your trip.
“It’s amazing to think about how we had about two hundred feet deep water below us, but the ice is pretty strong. The fire department usually only lets people onto the ice when the thickness is enough to drive a truck across.”
Of course, snowmobiles are the most efficient way of getting across the bridge, but they aren’t the only way. Folks have fun cross-country skiing, hiking, and even dog sledding!
The ice bridge goes back many years in the history of Mackinac Island. Hundreds of years ago, the British used this same ice bridge to haul men and materials across the ice as they moved Fort Michilimackinac from the mainland to the island. In the 1800s, dogsleds brought weekly mail, and horse-drawn cutters hauled firewood on this stretch of ice.
Today, locals and out-of-town adventurers alike use the ice bridge to travel to and from Mackinac island in a very similar way, albeit with the addition of modern technology, like snowmobiles.
“Andrew Doud owns the grocery store on the island, Doud’s Market. When the ice bridge forms, this is one of the most economical ways to bring deliveries from the mainland over to the island.”
“You’ll see on the left-hand side what looks like Christmas trees, and they are Christmas trees. These are what the islanders use to designate the east-west lanes between the island and the mainland. These are all Christmas trees that used to be in homes on Mackinac Island. The fire department brings these out and creates the two lanes. They also are the ones who check to make sure the ice is thick enough for snow machines to go across.”
These trees may not seem necessary in good weather, but it’s easy to get turned around when the wind is high, and the snow is blowing. A clear trail marker can be a huge help!
Legend has it that the Christmas trees are the idea of a famous Mackinac islander — Edward Biddle. After a loved one fell through the ice, Edward decided to line the safest parts of the ice with Christmas trees to guide other travelers and keep them from falling through as well. Whether or not this legend is entirely true, the Christmas tree tradition does have deep roots and has been practiced every year for as long as most folks can remember.
The ice bridge has become a favorite of winter activity enthusiasts due to its beauty and its fleeting nature. There aren’t many chances to drive a snowmobile over the Great Lakes! However, it’s important to note that travelers should take care, especially those new to snowmobiling.
“At the shore, we go a lot slower because the natural formation of the ice is a lot rougher. Because of the wave action when the ice forms, you get lots of rolling drifts of ice… I would recommend taking a guided tour just because it can get a little dicey if you’re not used to a snowmobile.”
In what seemed like no time at all, Sherri and Robert had arrived at the frozen shores of Mackinac Island. While most motorized vehicles are prohibited on Mackinac, as long as you have a city license, much of the island is traversable by snowmobile!
“Most of the roads and trails that people usually see bikers, hikers, horse-drawn carriages, and horseback riders on have now been turned into snowmobile trails. When the ice bridge forms, the snowmobiles from all over Michigan and the midwest flock here because this is where you can very rarely snowmobile. The trails are well-groomed, nice and wide, and just beautiful for scenery.”
Winter is undoubtedly a sleepier time for Mackinac Island, but that doesn’t mean everything is shut down. A few grocery stores, hotels, and restaurants will often stay open all year. What better end to a chilly snowmobile trip across Michigan’s famous frozen bridge than a warm room and a hot meal?
“It was amazing to see Mackinac Island from a completely different perspective than I ever had seen before. It really is a once-in-a-lifetime event to be on a sled and see the island like this… Seeing what is normally green, lush, and a summer location turned into this beautiful winter wonderland.”
Have you traveled across the ice bridge or visited Mackinac Island in the winter? Share your pictures and tag them @mipeninsulas. We’d love to see them!