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Windsledding in Lake Superior

A unique thrill on the frozen waves

Jan. 17, 2008
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Back in February, we were standing on the dock of the Madeline Island Ferry Line looking out at the frozen bay that separates, and now connects, the summer tourist mecca of Bayfield with the historic Ojibwe settlement and trading post, LaPointe on Madeline Island.

Fueled with a huge fisherman’s breakfast and in need of a walk, we’d left our comfortable and cozy room with a fireplace at the Old Rittenhouse Inn, one of the finest in the Midwest, to seek a little winter adventure here in the frozen north.

It’s a short walk to the harbor, but it was brisk.

For about 11 months a year the Island Queen, Bayfield, Madeline and Nichevo II ferries serve visitors with an exciting and romantic 20-minute ride to the only inhabited Apostle Island, which is not part of the National Lakeshore domain. To the 200 or so permanent residents of Madeline Island, the big blue and white boats are a lifeline carrying Cap’n Crunch, Oscar Mayer bacon, Quilted Northern tissue, Duracell AAA batteries, The Ashland Times, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Kibbles ’n Bits, Miller beer, Pop-Tarts and darn near everything they need to enjoy their splendid isolation.

Just a few days prior, the Madeline Island Ferry was still crunching through from Bayfield to LaPointe, but a good long stretch of cold weather—teens in the day and below-zero nights—had turned the bay to ice. Now the stuff is too thick for even the biggest ferries—Bayfield or Madeline—to smash through.

This is good news to the ferry captains and crew who look forward to a few weeks, sometimes a month or so, with no schedule to keep, some time to do maintenance, read a book or catch a flight to a warmer climate. Beautiful as the run is, everybody needs a change of scenery and a break in routine now and then. A little ice in February ensures a good disposition for the crew.

They know that at some point the ice will likely get thick enough to drive a car across. Islanders typically venture out, first on foot, and if they return relatively dry, they soon head back on an ATV or snowmobile to be sure the ice is thick enough to support a car. When it is declared solid, a kind of 2-mile road is marked from the island to the beach next to the Bayfield ferry dock. This is known as “the Christmas tree highway” because it’s marked with the recycled Christmas trees donated by Islanders and Bayfield residents. But even with a nice long cold stretch, shifting currents and springs in the bay can make for thin ice or soft spots. As the sign says, and a number of too-eager drivers have discovered, it’s always “drive at your own risk.”

In fact, in January 1977, a very cold year, Lyle Rhine watched as his truck, engine running, dropped a wheel into the water and then sank into Lake Superior. But that wasn’t the worst part. He was hauling a house across the ice to Madeline Island. The two-story residence followed the car 90 feet to the bottom. A photographer from Washburn, Rocky Barker, managed to snap a picture. The story ran all over the world. A song was even written about it. (Check it out at www.rockybarker. com/house.html.)

When the Windsled Runs

So it’s the days when the ice is frozen too thick for ferries, but not thick enough to support a car (or house), that the windsled runs.

If you’re in Bayfield to relax and have a little adventure, you can’t beat it. It’s one of the most amazing rides in Wisconsin—or anywhere in the Midwest—in winter.

Today it’s quiet. You can’t hear much except for an occasional “eeeehhhhhk”—the sound of lake ice cracking.

But we’re in luck. From the direction of the island comes a faint noise that sounds like a float plane getting ready to take off from a lake. Across the ice we see a dot moving toward us and as it does the noise gets louder. It’s the windsled carrying a load of people from LaPointe. The windsled usually runs only 10 to 20 days a year, more or less as ice conditions warrant. Most people have never had a ride in one and most never will. It’s a rare treat.

Ante up $5 and step aboard one of these crazy flat-bottomed boats powered by a stern-mounted airplane engine or two, depending on the sled you get. Step into the cozy cabin and sit down next to a few other tourists, a couple with cross-country skis, a photographer and a few Islanders (the ones packing bags of groceries and boxes of provisions, and occasionally accompanied by a dog who rides for free). Cuddle up, smile (you can’t help it) and pat Rover on the head.

Hints: Dress in layers, lots of them; bring earplugs and eat afterward. It can be a noisy and bumpy 15-minute ride as the engine revs up and the sled-boat bounces over snow drifts and iced-over waves, and maybe even drops into the lake for a moment. Not to worry: These sledpilots are experienced and know how to get the boat up and back out of the water.

For the full story of the Madeline Island windsleds, pick up a copy of the award-winning book On Thin Ice by Charles Nelson, who is the son of Elmer Nelson, the man who built the first windsled. He also has a windsled museum on the island. To find out more, visit his Web site at www.windsled.com.

When you arrive at the island, check to see when the next sled goes back and sync your watches. You don’t want to miss it. You’ll likely have time to visit the Bell Street Tavern, the Pub or maybe the Mission Hill Coffee House. There are usually a few residents around and you might hear a good story about living in this “Northern Exposure” town.

But don’t miss the return sled or they’ll have a new name for you here: Islander.


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