After Nearly Three Years Without a Break, Madeline Island Ferries Enter Hibernation

By Lisa Kaczke, Duluth News Tribune

After 1,019 days of continuous operation, the Madeline Island ferry finally can take a break.

The ice on Lake Superior is thick enough that the Madeline Island Ferry Line announced that Friday would be the last day of ferry operation for the winter. The last time the ferry was able to shut down for the winter — when crossing between the island and the mainland occurs via wind sleds or an ice road — was between Jan. 6 and March 28 in 2015.

The Island Queen (left) pulls over to one side of the channel to let the Nichevo II, piloted by Captain Steve Miller (right), pass on the way from Bayfield to Madeline Island on Friday. It was the last day of ferry service to the island for the season due to heavy ice buildup on Lake Superior. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

The ice was so thick much of this past week that the Island Queen was the only one of the four ferries capable of traveling through it, though the Nichevo II also was out on Friday.

“We have to be really careful with the Island Queen. … She’s the only boat besides the ore boats running on the Great Lakes right now. There’s no one that can help us if we break down,” ferry captain Kim Mager, who has worked for the ferry for 20 years, said Thursday. “There’s days when the ice pushes and you can’t get through it because it’s pushing you so hard that you kind of think you have to walk to shore and leave the boat.”

Sam Carrier of Washburn, part of the Nichevo II crew, carts water, berries and lumber on board the ferry in Bayfield shortly before it departs for Madeline Island on Friday morning. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

Ferry captain Matthew Olson said Friday that the ice was 8 to 10 inches thick along the entire route.

“It’s hard going today because ice is getting thicker,” he said.

Captain Steve Miller of Washburn pilots the Nichevo II to Madeline Island on Friday. The Madeline Island Ferry Line ship’s speed was 6 knots (6.9 mph); the distance from Bayfield to the island is 2.5 miles. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

The ferry has continued to travel between Bayfield and the island for the longer-than-normal stretch due to the warm winters of 2015-16 and 2016-17, when the ice never got thick enough to drive vehicles on. The news about the shutdown will likely be welcomed by Madeline Island residents, Mager said; once the ice road opens, they can travel at will to and from the mainland without waiting for a ferry.

“They want their ice road. They want the freedom. I want to keep running the boat all winter,” Mager said.

With the temperature at zero and headwinds blowing, few passengers ventured aboard the top deck to take in the view from the Nichevo II as it headed back to Bayfield after picking up passengers at Madeline Island on Friday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

But operating for three years without the winter shutdown can become tough on the crew.

“We don’t get to do the maintenance on the boats. It gets hard on the crew because we’re continuously running and don’t have time to do maintenance,” Mager said.

“We need a nice break,” Olson said.

Under low clouds, the Island Queen ferry travels a channel filled with ice churned by it and the Nichevo II’s runs to and from Madeline Island on Friday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

To do maintenance without shutting down the ferries, they’ve been swapping between the two larger boats that run during the summer and the two smaller boats that are icebreakers.

Captain Matthew Olson of Ashland unties the Island Queen before departing from Bayfield. Bob King / DNT

The ferries usually stop from the beginning of January to the end of March. Operating through the entire winter is a rare occurrence. In the 150 years of ferry records, it’s only happened in 1998, 2012, 2016 and 2017.

“With the change in the weather and the currents, this is not usual, not to shut down like this,” Mager said.

The use of wind sleds and the ice road to get to the island also depends on weather. Some years the ice isn’t thick enough for a road, or pressure cracks close the ice road and residents end up needing to use the wind sleds for most of the winter, she said.

Trees that will serve as markers for the ice road between Bayfield and Madeline Island are dropped off by snowmobile on Friday afternoon on Chequamegon Bay just outside of Bayfield. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

Mager urged people to dress accordingly when using the wind sled or ice road in case they end up needing to walk to their destination due to a breakdown or a pressure crack forming on the ice.

With cars and passengers on board, Captain Matthew Olson secures the gate on the Island Queen ferry before the trip to Madeline Island. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

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