- Associated Press - Sunday, March 16, 2014

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) - A moment of pure terror surged through Tom Bisbee when the ice cracked beneath his feet.

The cold came next as he plunged into the frigid waters of Lake Michigan nearly 1.5 miles from the nearest piece of dry land.

“There was a half-second where I was just terrified,” Bisbee told the Traverse City Record-Eagle ( https://bit.ly/1qspmDZ ). “But I managed to catch my arms on the front-side of the ice pack. Once that panic passed, I realized I was fine.”

A daring trek across the frozen Manitou Passage almost ended there in tragedy, but Bisbee latched onto the ice and kept his head above the surface of the near-freezing water. He then pushed, pulled and rolled himself back to the relative-safety of the lake’s pack ice.

The other three men who set out March 6 with Bisbee to cross the eight miles of frozen water between Leelanau County’s mainland and North Manitou Island barely reacted before Bisbee crawled out of the water.

Bisbee peeled off his wet clothes and pulled on a dry set he packed for just such an emergency.

Then he, Bob Sutherland, Andrew Moore and Andrew Pritchard continued their long trek back to shore.

Sutherland, the owner of the Glen Arbor-based Cherry Republic retail chain, readily admitted to the danger inherent in their day-long hiking expedition; he and Bisbee, a distribution center manager at Cherry Republic, tried to walk to Manitou Island on separate occasions this winter but turned back because of safety concerns.

But Sutherland said completing the journey has been on his mind since his father and brothers attempted to do the same in 1975, when a stretch of open water forced them to turn back for the mainland about a mile from the island’s shore.

The bitter cold of this winter made a successful journey plausible for one of the first times since the 1970s, Sutherland said.

Moore, Cherry Republic’s marketing coordinator, warned others not to recreate the hike because those conditions were gone by Monday morning.

But conditions were perfect last week, and the four men - armed with ice picks, cleated shoes and hiking packs stuffed full of supplies - left the mainland at about noon on March 6.

Sutherland took the lead, tethered to the men behind him by a rope tied around his waist. He checked the ice’s thickness every hundred yards with his pick.

The four men briefly stopped at the lighthouse, known as “The Crib,” which sits in middle of the passage. The Crib served as a point of reference, and they were confident about reaching the island from there.

But things got harder as they pressed on. The next leg of the journey involved crossing a field of table-top-sized sheets of five-inch thick ice stacked one on top of another. Some protruded at strange angles and others slipped and slid under foot.

The hikers dubbed this section of the passage “The Boneyard.” Pritchard, Cherry Republic’s digital marketing manager, said crossing the ice sheets was like hiking through a field of boulders.

“You think about the forces that broke them up and piled them on top of each other and you just want to feel small,” he said. “The forces on that lake are incredible.”

The hikers reached North Manitou Island about 4.5 hours into their journey. They briefly rested and ate a quick lunch, mostly in silence, as they reflected on the beauty around them.

“It was spectacular out there on the ice,” Sutherland said. “It’s like you’re in Antarctica. It was surreal. It was like a polar expedition.”

The group didn’t stay on the island long before it was time to return home. They found a route around the ankle-breaking Boneyard field on their return trip, but Bisbee fell through the ice about 1.5 miles from the island’s shore.

The low winter sun dipped below the western horizon as the men neared the beaches of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. It was dark by the time they collapsed on the snow-covered sand, exhausted from their nearly eight-hour journey and thankful to be back on solid ground.

“It felt so good to lay on that beach on our backpacks and look up at the sky,” Sutherland said. “Coming back through a terrific sunset and into a starry night, it just gave us this whole spectrum of a beatific day and a beautiful event.”


Information from: Traverse City Record-Eagle, https://www.record-eagle.com

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