For Islanders In Lake Superior, Warmer Winters Mean They Can't Drive

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Typically, by this time in the winter, the ice is thick enough to support an ice road from Bayfield, Wis., to Madeline Island. But for the second year in a row, the ferry will run all winter long.
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For Michael Childers, ice makes getting around a little easier.

When it's thick enough, the ice on Lake Superior creates a makeshift road between Bayfield, Wis., and Madeline Island, the small resort island where Childers and about 250 others live year-round.

But for the second year in a row, warmer winters have made it necessary for the ferries that usually don't operate during winter to continue to run.

The ferry is a lifeline for islanders, transporting schoolchildren, commuters, vehicles and supplies back and forth to the mainland.

"It is an interesting rhythm of life," says Childers, who owns a small business called Madeline Island Candles with his husband. "You're constantly aware of when's the next boat, when's the next boat."

But its strict schedule makes the ice road a welcome change, he says.

"Because it is freedom," Childers says. "You can go when you choose, at night, at day, whenever you want."

But now that freedom seems to be melting away. Ice cover on Lake Superior has declined by nearly 80 percent since 1973.

Capt. Shannon Mager steers the Island Queen ferry through broken up sheets of ice on the 25-minute trip to the island. "It's only a couple inches thick," she says. "It froze back over the other night."

In most years, the ice is at least a foot thick by February — much too thick for the ferries to plow through.

"People used to be able to almost mark their calendars and say the ferries will stop sometime around the first or second week of January, and then the ice road will come in maybe a week to 10 days after that," says Mike Radtke, the marine operations manager for the ferry line.

But not anymore. Before 1999, the ferries never operated all winter. But since that time, they've run year-round four times — including three times in the last six years.

Jay Austin, a physicist at the Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota Duluth, says there will continue to be lots of ice on Lake Superior. "We're still going to have high ice years and low ice years; we're just going to see more and more of those low ice years," he says.

As for Michael Childers, he says if the island loses its ice road, "a part of what has made life interesting and special here will go away."

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