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 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.