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Balmy days melt winter fun


PUT-IN-BAY, Ohio -- Two years ago, Sophia Schroeder had the best birthday of her life. She stood on frozen Lake Erie near this town on South Bass Island and ate ice cream. Her father dragged her sled across the ice behind his snowmobile.

Later they ate birthday cake around a huge bonfire built right on the ice. "That was my favorite birthday party ever," said Sophia, now 7.

This year, Sophia spent her birthday inside, playing video games with friends. "It's really boring here without ice," she said.

For the first time that anyone in Put-in-Bay could remember, the Great Lakes were ice-free in the middle of winter. Even Lake Erie, the shallowest of the five lakes and usually the first to freeze over, was clear.

"There's essentially no ice at all," said George Leshkevich, a scientist who has studied Great Lakes ice for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, since 1973. "I've never seen that."

The unusually warm weather has upset the routine for hundreds of people who live year-round on islands in Lake Erie. On summer weekends, 14,000 tourists turn South Bass, the largest island on the American side of Lake Erie, into a teeming resort.

"You either make your money in the summer or you don't make it at all," said Tip Niese, owner of the grocery store in Put-in-Bay, the only town on the island.

The first ice usually forms in late November, and by January it locks into place. For islanders, it is the equivalent of summer vacation.

"Winter is the only time we get to see our friends," says Maggie Beckford, president of the Put-in-Bay chamber of commerce. "Everybody's too busy during the summer."

Once the lake freezes, islanders organize impromptu ice rallies. Families gather to drink hot wine and race all-terrain vehicles across the lake. They also race iceboats, which resemble sailboats on skates.

Put-in-Bay even has its own ice yacht club.

Many people drive to other islands for dinner with friends. They ride in cars with the roofs and doors chopped off so they can escape if the vehicles fall through the ice.

Islanders stab evergreen trees into the ice every 50 yards to mark a route.

"We'll drive across the lake to Canada, have a cocktail, then turn around and come home," says Kendra Koehler, editor of the monthly Put-in-Bay Gazette.

Even in the coldest winters, there are dangerous patches of thin ice. The cracks are so predictable that the Put-in-Bay Ice Yacht Club prints them on a map. One is called State Park Crack. Another, Green Island Crack, is known to be particularly wide and treacherous.

"These big sheets of ice move just like tectonic plates," said Billy Market, president of the Miller Boat Line, a ferry company.

Knowing the cracks by heart is a job requirement for ice-fishing guides, who form the backbone of the islands' winter economy. On a normal winter day, the ice is dotted with 2,000 fishing shanties.

"It looks like a little city," said Matt Miller, a ferry boat captain who is not related to the family that started the company.

Even small, part-time guides bring 10 to 14 people across on weekends. "That's 14 hotel rooms, 14 steak dinners," said Pat Chrysler, a guide. "In a small community, that's a lot."

This year, the unusually warm weather wiped out the ice-fishing trade. Many guides tried boat fishing, but strong winds whipped up sediment and clouded the water so the walleyes could not see the lures. "I'm down $40,000," said Bud Gehring, another guide.

"It's hurt everybody."

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