BAYFIELD, WIS. – Arnie Nelson eased his pickup truck along the frozen path on Lake Superior, trying not to create waves in the 160 feet of water underneath him.
As keeper of the Madeline Island Ice Road, a slick 2¼ mile thoroughfare on the world’s largest freshwater lake, Nelson scanned the surface for new cracks, soft dips or any other signs of weakening. He parked at a potentially thin spot and watched as his son dipped a roaring chain saw straight into the ice for a measurement: still 23 inches thick, plenty sturdy to hold cars and light trucks.
Their island neighbors would be pleased.
This winter’s stretch of bitter cold has been downright blissful for full-time residents of Madeline Island, with subfreezing temperatures finally delivering a sheet of lake ice thick enough to drive over. After warm winters kept the water between the island and Bayfield from freezing the past two seasons, islanders are once again liberated, for a couple of months anyway, enjoying the ability to leave whenever they want without the usual expense and schedule limitations of a ferry.
And they want it to last as long as possible.
“They love it,” Nelson said. “It’s their freedom.”
Since the ice road opened in mid-January, some of the island’s 250 winter residents have driven across the frozen lake to buy a single cooking ingredient, to meet a friend for coffee or to satisfy simple cravings.
It brings a special kind of glee.
“You don’t make an islander any happier than that,” said Evan Erickson, publisher of the local Island Gazette, who keeps records on the dates the road opens and closes each year. “Even people who might hate each other wave to each other out there.”
Michael Parsons brought back bags of burgers and fries from McDonald’s one recent evening. Though he also ran other errands, he said, he has known friends who have driven across simply to make a fast-food run, free of the more than $30 round-trip ferry charge for one guy driving a small pickup.
When island resident Joe Noha needs a few extra pieces of plywood for a project, he simply jumps in his truck and hops on the ice road and heads to Bayfield. “It only costs me 15 minutes instead of $50 and an hour,” he said.
For Tavis Pearson’s daughter, this year’s reemergence of the ice road meant a big outing for her fifth birthday party — four kids and four adults piled into two cars and headed to Ashland, Wis., to see the movie “Peter Rabbit.” It was a trip that would have been out of the question otherwise, Pearson said: “It would have cost us hundreds of dollars.”
In Nelsons they trust
Islanders have endured without an ice road six of the past 20 winters, but never for two years in a row until the past two, according to Erickson’s records, which date to 1988. The average number of days it has been open has been shrinking in recent years, too, he said, from more than 50 to the low 40s.
“When you live around ice, you see climate change right in your face,” he said. But this year, he said, “It’s pretty normal, for a switch.”
Yet even in the coldest of winters, driving the ice road is a travel-at-your-own-risk endeavor.
Many motorists unclick their seat belts, and a few roll down their windows, just in case the ice cracks and a vehicle starts to sink.
Some businesspeople from the mainland refuse to traverse the road, leaving work undone until they can go via ferry in the spring, islanders said. One island resident who tried to refinance his house couldn’t get the appraiser to come out, so he had to find a different one, locals said.
But islanders have confidence in Nelson, a 67-year-old construction business owner who has cleared and maintained the ice road for nearly 40 years under a contract with the island town of La Pointe. He honed his roadkeeping skills — part science and part art — with help from his father, who ran the ice road until 1979.
“Arnie knows the ice, and Arnie doesn’t want anyone to lose their life out there,” said Lisa Potswald, La Pointe town administrator.
Nelson, his brother Ronnie, and his 36-year-old son, Nate, scan the road several times a day, looking for subtle changes in ice color as well as new cracks and pressure ridges. They know how winds affect ice formation, where the currents are located, and which sections typically have the thinnest and thickest slabs. They require a minimum of 11 inches of ice to open the road, and they occasionally change the route, putting up traffic cones to direct vehicles to a safer path.
At the water’s edge in Bayfield, where cars leave deposits of salt and gravel from mainland streets and highways, the ice deteriorates quickly, requiring occasional flooding — with a special lake pump — and refreezing.
On weekends, as many as 20 to 25 cars might be on the road at once, some driven by tourists fulfilling a bucket-list thrill. The road’s speed limit is 15 miles per hour. Speeders might get dirty looks from the locals, who understand that a car moving too fast creates waves underneath, possibly damaging the ice.
“If they come over and they get freaked out, they tend to drive faster because they think it’s safer and they just want to get off the ice quicker,” Nate Nelson explained. “It’s actually just the opposite. The slower you go, the safer you are, for the most part.”
Added his father: “As [the ice] gets thinner and weaker, you can really notice, you can see that wave … see it, feel it.”
At the beginning and end of the winter season, when the ice is too thin for cars but still too thick for the ferry, the Nelsons run the town’s windsleds, airboat-type vehicles that carry people across.
Few cars have gone through the ice in the channel over the years, but the Nelsons shake their head at those who ignore their direction and try to go across on their own, either on their own paths or after the road is closed. In the 1970s, a truck tried to tow a fully furnished two-story house to the island far off the road, but it didn’t go well. The house became a spectacle after it broke through the ice, then took days to sink.
With warmer weather closing in, this winter’s ice road probably won’t last much longer. Another week, maybe two, Arnie Nelson said.
As the springlike sun glared recently, melting a sheen on the road and turning its snowbank shoulders to slush, residents knew their time — and freedom — was limited.
Islander Ted Pallas made a big grocery run in anticipation of the road’s closing, filling his vehicle with meat, bread, paper towels, cleaning supplies and beer.
“I just like to be ready,” he explained. “When you have the road, why not use it?”
With her pregnancy due date nearing, Sarah Schram decided not to take chances. She and her husband Ben crossed the ice and got a hotel room in Ashland, near their birth center, and ended up having their baby boy a day later.
Back home on Madeline Island, where they’ve lived for 15 years, the couple was relieved that they had made it across and back, newborn safe in their arms.
“Now we’re kind of like, ‘OK, the road can do whatever it wants,’ ” Sarah Schram said.
But for most other islanders, the end of the season is bittersweet. Spring’s inevitable melt means a return to the daily routine of relying on a windsled, then a ferry. Residents will feel quiet isolation for a brief couple of months before the tourists come rushing back.
“Days are getting longer,” Arnie Nelson said. “Season’s almost over.”
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102