Warm winter extends season for Lake Superior ferry (with video)If a resident of Madeline Island wants to catch tonight’s 7:30 showing of “Star Wars: Episode I” in 3-D at the theater in Ashland, they’ll have to plan on a 15-hour commitment.
By: Andrew Krueger, Duluth News Tribune
BAYFIELD — If a resident of Madeline Island wants to catch tonight’s 7:30 showing of “Star Wars: Episode I” in 3-D at the theater in Ashland, they’ll have to plan on a 15-hour commitment.
Catch the last ferry to the mainland at 4:30 p.m. and drive a few dozen miles to Ashland. Wait around and watch the movie. Then find a place to stay overnight, because the first boat back to the island isn’t until 7:30 Sunday morning.
At this time of year, it’s not supposed to be like that.
Normally, an ice road linking the island to the mainland is in place by now, giving island residents a few weeks of freedom to come and go as they please, day or night, unbound by the ferry schedule. It’s a bright spot in the dark days of winter.
But not this winter.
Thanks to above-normal temperatures, the channel between Bayfield and Madeline Island was mostly open water as of Friday afternoon. It’s not unprecedented, but it is unusual — though observers say the ice road season does seem to be getting shorter as years go by.
“People who have stayed here in the winter have always looked forward to the time the ice road opened … so you could come and go at any time. It just really opened up passage to the mainland when you could drive there whenever you want to,” said Burke Henry, a full-time resident of the island since 1996. Without the ice road, “there’s no way you can go over to the mainland for dinner unless you’re willing to spend the night on the mainland.”
There’s also a financial benefit: It’s free to drive the ice road but you have to pay for a ferry ride.
Henry has compiled a list of dates showing the last ferry run of the winter and first of the spring, dating back to 1965. It shows a general trend toward shorter gaps between the two — especially since 1998, the only year since 1965 when the boats kept operating all winter.
“Before 1998 … the freeze-up was pretty predictable. It would start getting cold in December, gradually just get colder and colder, January would be consistently cold, and around the first or second week of January we would be done, and then not start up again until late March or early April,” said Mike Radtke, marine operations manager for the Madeline Island Ferry Line. “That whole predictability has really gone away.”
That predictability was an annual transportation cycle from ferries, to wind sleds for a brief time as ice conditions changed, to the ice road — and then back again.
Radtke said this is the time of year when the ferry line usually does maintenance on its fleet. It’s not hugely disruptive to miss that down time, he said, and the boats are designed to operate in icy waters, but prolonged winter sailing “definitely increases our costs in fuel, labor, maintenance, etc., for a time of the year when our traffic is very small. Does it pay to be running this time of year? No. Is it an essential service for the island? Yes. We’re a private business providing a public service, an essential service, so that’s the challenge.”
On Thursday, the Island Queen, with Captain Joni Vaughan at the wheel, sliced through a field of broken ice on the 2½-mile run from Bayfield to Madeline Island, the rumble of the engine equaled by the clatter of the hull meeting thick plates of ice. Just to the north of the ferry route, on a solidifying portion of ice, evergreen trees marked the planned route of the ice road.
“It’s bittersweet,” Vaughan, a veteran of more than two decades with the ferry line, said of the longer season. “It is a bummer because there are fun things I would like to be doing now, but it’s nice to be able to work, and the conditions today … we were going across this morning at 6:15 with the full moon and moonlight reflecting off the ice and the snow, and on our next trip back, the sunrise is coming up (and) the orange and the pink are reflecting off the snow. So there are those little perks.”
On Friday, a shift in the wind had cleared the channel of most of the ice, Radtke reported. Some of those evergreen road markers had fallen into the water.
“The rhythm of life on the island has been disrupted. That was the rhythm — the ferries would shut down, and people would ride the wind sled for a week or two, then the road would come in, and there’d be all this excitement about the ice road. Then they’d shut the ice road … and there’d be excitement about the new ferry season,” said Radtke, who has worked for the ferry line for 23 years. “There was always sort of this closure of one season and the startup of another, and that’s kind of come to an end.”