From behind a small desk on Buffalo’s waterfront, Rick Lenard is lamenting the fallout from a tough winter and what it means for boaters. With great detail and color, he talks about the water still being bitterly cold and the ice boom still being in place.
Overnight temperatures near freezing make it hard to work on your boat, he adds with a grimace, and, even worse, there’s the plight of a small but passionate group of boaters denied one of their favorite pastimes. Lenard refers to them as “the die-hards.”
“They go skiing during the day and sailing at night,” he said.
Lenard’s quirky skiers turned sailors may not be the norm but they are part of a community of boaters, fishermen and others who are feeling the brunt of a brutal three-month attack on their beloved Lake Erie.
This year, it’s the massive ice covering on the lake that kept the skiers from sailing. And it’s still covering a large portion of Lake Erie. AccuWeather reported Friday that one-third of the Great Lakes are still covered with ice, the second-largest ice covering ever recorded at this point in the year. And more than 15 percent of Lake Erie was still ice-covered, the highest percentage in more than 40 years, even topping the brutal winter of 1977-78.
Meteorologists say the ice cover has started to melt over the past month, but the area remains the biggest in more than 30 years and more than two times bigger than the second biggest ice cover for the same week in 1996.
And, of course, here the ice meets the ice boom, the collection of floating steel pontoons that stretch across the Niagara River and block ice from flowing down river into the water intakes of the Niagara Power Project. The downside, of course, is that the ice gathers upriver until the boom is released.
Timing of the removal of the ice boom is determined by the International Joint Commission’s Niagara Board of Control. Typically, the ice boom is removed when there is less than 250 square miles of ice remaining in the eastern end of Lake Erie.
Each year boaters and fishermen are left guessing when the boom will be removed. This year is no different.
“I believe we’ll have ice until May,” said Herb Schultz, past president of the Southtowns Walleye Association of Western New York, a local fishing group.
Lenard said he heard April 28 but acknowledged it was just a rumor. Officials at the Power Authority suggested a date in early May but declined to be more specific.
They also were quick to note that the ice boom’s removal is not a decision they alone can make. It’s governed by U.S.-Canada treaty and depends on the amount of ice still covering the lake.
“The longer the ice is out there, the longer it is for us to get into our fishing season,” said Dave Woodworth, president of the Southtowns Walleyes.
Woodworth is worried about a big eight-day fishing tournament his group is hosting in June. He wonders if they’ll have enough time to prepare.
For anyone who has lived here long enough, there’s an appreciation for why the ice boom is out there. People understand its value.
What can’t be helped is how its removal has become a rite of spring. And this year, after a record cold winter, the boom’s removal seems to have taken on an urgency not previously seen around the waterfront.
“We’re a month behind,” Schultz said. “We should be getting our boats ready. My boat’s still in storage.”
Of course, what good is a seaworthy vessel without a marina to dock it?
Boaters worry that even when their boats are ready for the water, their marina may not be open.
“I’m a Buffalo guy,” Lenard said. “I wear shorts when I shovel snow. But this winter? This is the coldest winter I can remember.”
Nevertheless, the docks at RCR Yachts on Fuhrmann Boulevard are already in the water, Lenard said. Other marina operators say they plan to follow suit in the coming weeks. The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority’s Small Boat Harbor is scheduled to open May 15, later than the past two years but on par with most other years.
“The last few years, we’ve been able to open early,” said NFTA spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer.
At the Buffalo Yacht Club, everything is on schedule for a May 10 opening of the marina. Even more telling, perhaps, the club’s high school sailing group has already been out on the lake.
“They’re in the water,” said Commodore Robert Stelianou. “They’re out sailing.”
Friday, with the region seeing some signs of spring for the first time, there was more than a handful of fishermen lining the shorelines of Lake Erie.
Near Gallagher Pier, not far from the Small Boat Harbor, about a dozen fishermen were trying their luck.
“I had the day off from work,” said John Limardi, of West Seneca.
Normally, Limardi would be out on his 14-foot boat, but the ice had him shore-bound.
“”What are you going to do?” he said of the ice boom. “You can’t take it out.”
On this day, most of the other fishermen seemed content to toss their lines in the lake.
“They’re doing real good with perch,” said Wayne Kapulka of Buffalo. “Me? All I can catch is bass.”