Bump-a-thump: Madeline Island’s windsleds

Here’s the question: What happens if you and your brother want a vacation?

Answer: Everybody leaves the island.

Har, har. Just joking, says Arnie Nelson. Fact is, he and brother Ronnie don’t take off much time during winter.

Only about 250 people live on Madeline Island all year, and they rely on the Nelson brothers to stay connected to the rest of civilization, especially during the in-between times of winter. “In-between” means too icy for ferry boats to operate but not safe enough to designate and maintain a 2.5-mile road of ice on Lake Superior, which links the island with Bayfield.

Ice thickness must exceed 11 inches before the ice road opens and vehicles are driven onto it. Until then, the Nelson brothers transport people, parcels and other property aboard one of three windsleds, the largest of which carries 20 people. The oldest, an eight-passenger, makeshift vessel built by their father more than 30 years ago, resembles a heavy, semi-enclosed fishing boat with a fat wheel at its point and choppy blades whirling at the tail.

I board the third vessel, the only one operating today. It looks little and sleek but slips and slides with the wind and whims of the icy terrain. Up to six passengers can ride, and the majority are islanders with groceries in tow. Ronnie, our captain, takes us on a near-constant bump-bounce, jolt-jostle that lasts no more than 10 minutes. It’s too noisy to talk much, too jittery to take photos but enclosed and toasty inside.

The windsled slows early on, while inching toward a precarious crack of open water. Ronnie gingerly sizes up the situation and vehicle position, makes deft steering adjustments and guns it. I’m still not sure if we jumped that crack or quickly skimmed over it.

The choppy, frozen-water ballet happens at least three times, roundtrip, per day between Bayfield and La Pointe. One-way fare is $5. The biggest windsled burns up to 100 gallons of gas daily, but 50-60 is closer to the average. The type of windsled used depends upon ridership demand, ice thickness, ice brittleness and severity of ice cracks.

The Nelson brothers, who also plow snow from island streets and operate the town tow truck, use windsleds to transport about 20 children to and from a school bus in Bayfield. They also are among the first responders for marine rescue and are trained emergency medical technicians (La Pointe formed an ice rescue squad in 1915, after three islanders died when their boat capsized off of ice).

“We transport everything,” Arnie says, “Kids, workers, beer, mail, caskets.”

So where do you go when visiting Madeline Island in winter, and how do you get there? Last question first: Expect a frosty walk, or beg a ride from one of the locals when leaving the windsled.

Hard-core lovers of the outdoors camp at Big Bay State Park. Only the Island Inn, Lightkeeper’s Lodge and Inn on Madeline Island offer indoor winter lodging.

Sip hot java at Mission Hill Coffee House until it closes at 2 p.m. You’ll likely have one dining option: Bell Street Tavern, kind of a shrine to Brett Favre, with lots of seating, a cozy stone fireplace and plenty of big-screen TVs for sports fans.

“There is a cultural anticipation and practical community need for the ice road,” notes Elizabeth Carlson, who with husband John moved to Madeline Island after living in the Twin Cities for 15 years.

He is an electrician, and she juggles multiple jobs, including membership/outreach work for the area’s Girl Scout council. She also is a substitute teacher and works for the Madeline Island Ferry Line.

It is not unusual for one islander to assume several roles.

“It may appear (to the tourist) that our community is laid-back, but we have fewer people here to get the same amount of work done,” Elizabeth notes.

Living on Madeline Island year-round means learning to adapt. “If you want a loaf of bread, you might end up with a bag of hot dog buns because the store is out of bread,” John explains.

The lifestyle is about connecting with nature and knowing how to respect it. John mentions that a mother bear with cubs prevented him from leaving a tree blind for 15 long minutes during deer hunting.

“You respect the impact that Lake Superior has on your life,” Elizabeth adds, and residents’ dependency on the ferry also dictates life rhythms. “There’s a schedule, they keep it and that’s it,” she says. “I haven’t had to sleep in my car in Bayfield yet, because I’ve missed the last ferry, but many have.”

She describes the island as being home to “a lot of talented people – during a tea for writers at our public library, about 20 authors showed up, and we probably could have added another 30.”

Technology lessens the isolation. “I’m Skyping – so I’m seeing my kids,” Elizabeth says. “This is our home. We fit in well with the community structure – and we get away for a month of vacation in the winter.”

Unlike the Nelson brothers …

For more about Madeline Island: 888-475-3386, www.madelineisland.com. For more about area’s off-island transportation system, especially during this time of year: 715-747-5400, www.madferry.com. A one-way windsled ride costs $5.

Ice caves near Meyers Beach, north of Bayfield, are a major winter attraction – but accessibility changes from day to day, depending upon visibility and ice conditions on wily Lake Superior. “The conditions at the caves can change in less time than it takes to walk there,” the National Park Service warns.

Call 715-779-3397, ext. 3, for condition updates and advice about how to proceed to see these natural wonders. For generic info: www.nps.gov/apis.