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

Feb 22, 2017
Originally published on February 22, 2017 8:43 am

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."

Copyright 2017 Minnesota Public Radio. To see more, visit Minnesota Public Radio.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Warmer winters are melting away a unique aspect of life on a small resort island in Lake Superior. For the second year in a row, there's not enough ice on Lake Superior to safely drive a car between Bayfield, Wis., and Madeline Island. Dan Kraker of Minnesota Public Radio reports.

DAN KRAKER, BYLINE: Usually by this time of year, the four Madeline Island ferries are getting some well-deserved rest and maintenance after another busy tourist season, but not this winter. Captain Shannon Mager is steering the Island Queen through broken up sheets of ice on the 25-minute trip to the island.

SHANNON MAGER: It's only a couple inches thick. It froze back over the other night.

KRAKER: In most years, the ice is at least a foot thick by now, much too thick for the ferries to plow through. Then when it's thick enough, an ice road connects the island and the mainland. Mike Radtke is marine operations manager for the ferry line.

MIKE RADTKE: People used to be able to almost mark their calendar 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.

KRAKER: But not anymore. Prior to 1999, the ferries never operated all winter. But since then, they've run year round four times - three times in the last six years.

RADTKE: In essence, that's a pretty dramatic change.

KRAKER: I wanted to get a better idea of what that change means for people who live on Madeline Island. So when the ferry pulled into shore with a bitter wind whipping off the lake, I met a guy named Michael Childers.

MICHAEL CHILDERS: Michael.

KRAKER: Michael?

CHILDERS: Yes.

KRAKER: Good to see you.

CHILDERS: Let's get out of the cold.

KRAKER: Yeah, let's do that.

Childers and his husband own a small business called Madeline Island Candles.

CHILDERS: Please come in.

KRAKER: They're among the 250 or so people who live on the island year-round.

CHILDERS: It is an interesting rhythm of life. You're constantly aware of when's the next boat, when's the next boat?

KRAKER: The ferry is a lifeline for islanders. It transports school kids, commuters, vehicles and supplies back and forth to the mainland. But it operates on a strict schedule. And that's why Childers says the ice road is such a welcome change.

CHILDERS: Because it is freedom. You can go when you choose, at night, at day, whenever you want.

KRAKER: But now that freedom seems to be melting away. Ice cover on Lake Superior has declined by nearly 80 percent since 1973. Jay Austin says there will continue to be cold winters with lots of ice on Lake Superior. He's a physicist at the Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

JAY AUSTIN: 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.

KRAKER: And that would make life significantly different for Michael Childers.

CHILDERS: If we move, as it appears we are, in a direction where we lose our ice road, a part of what has made life interesting and special here will go away.

KRAKER: And he says that would be a sadness for most Madeline Island residents. For NPR News, I'm Dan Kraker in Bayfield, Wis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.