Walking (and Driving) on Water: Winter on Madeline Island

Madeline Island in the winter is a completely different experience than it is in the summer. Tourism doesn’t just slow down in the off season, it damn near stops entirely. Save for a handful of winter adventurers and an even smaller handful of badass, die hard locals, the island feels all but deserted from October to April. The stores and restaurants close for the season; Tom’s Burned Down Cafe boarded up, waiting for the warm breezes of summer; and you’re just as likely to see a snowmobile cruising down Main Street as you are an actual car. But the beauty of winter on Madeline Island cannot be denied.

You might be wondering how one gets to an island in Lake Superior in the dead of winter. Depending on the day and how cold it’s been, you could get one of three answers:

  1. Ferry. Happening with increasing frequency thanks to climate change, milder winters have meant a year round ferry season when the lake never fully freezes.
  2. Wind Sled. The least appealing and sustainable option, before the lake is thick enough to drive on, but after it’s too thick for the ferry, islanders travel back and forth to the mainland, skidding across the thin ice on what’s essentially an everglades boat with an airplane propeller on the back. Bring earplugs.
  3. Ice Road. The lake between the mainland and the island, once frozen, is actually considered a part of State Highway 13. img_1500

The Ice Road begins in Bayfield next to the ferry docks. With a speed limit of 15 miles per hour (to prevent creating wake in the waters beneath the thick, frozen layer of lake), and Islanders’ discarded Christmas trees marking the route, the Madeline Island Ice Road is, like all things on Madeline, something you just have to experience to fully appreciate.

The day I arrived was bitterly cold. So cold, in fact, that Duluth set a record for the coldest March day ever (a fact I was thrilled to have been present for). The entrance to the Ice Road was frozen solid as I slowly inched my rental car from land to the frozen expanse of lake before me, with sparkling snowflakes blowing across the well-worn path.

When I reached the middle of the “road” I stopped the car and got out, feeling like a kid again when my dad would stop and let us run around on the ice before continuing on our way. I realized very quickly that I hadn’t dressed appropriately for this adventure. Since I don’t own a winter coat, I was sporting two long sleeve tee shirts and two hoodies, jeans that had holes in them, and my cute, but not functional boots. I had a scarf, but no hat or mittens, and definitely no snow pants. My nose hairs were frozen within seconds. jonis beach madeline islandAfter taking a moment to appreciate the experience and revel in happy childhood memories I got back in the warm car and continued on, passing some ice fisherman, one other traveler, and the wind sleds parked at the island’s shore, before I felt my tires grip the solid ground of Madeline Island. I was home.

I drove down Main Street, past the closed up storefronts and eateries, the summer homes that had been winterized for the season; abandoned to the snow drifts until the spring melt. I passed my old house and church, Joni’s Beach, with the dock where I used to spend hours with my girlfriends, our feet dangling into the water. I drove around the empty marina with its lonely, snow-covered docks, and then headed out to my favorite place on The Island: Big Bay Town Park.

As I drove it occurred to me that unless the town was maintaining it during the winter months, the park may not be accessible. I was grateful to find the entrance plowed, but as I parked the car I realized I still wasn’t in the clear. Though the driveway was plowed, the trail to the beach most definitely was not. My jeans and fashionable boots suddenly seemed alarmingly ineffective. I hesitated for a few moments as the wind whistled through the air, wondering if hiking through snow up to mid-thigh was wise, but ultimately decided: fuck wisdom, I wanna be on that beach, and frostbite is treatable.

It took considerably longer than usual to reach the staircase that leads down to the beach. Trudging through snow that deep is no joke. I was winded and sweaty despite being freezing by the time I reached the end of the trail and was gazing out across the lagoon. Even in the winter, under a blanket of snow instead of a blanket of summer stars, the view took my breath away. Though, to be fair, that may have partially been the wind whipping in my face. So cold was the wind that my revelry ended significantly earlier than it does in the summer months.

The next challenge to getting to the beach was the stairs. Previous visitors had packed the snow down so tight that each step was now coated with a thick mound of ice. I once again questioned the wisdom in continuing, and once again was too determined to reach that beach to be wise. I slowly sidestepped my way down the stairs, across the bridge, and finally found myself standing safely on a deserted Big Bay Beach.

I thought Big Bay was peaceful at night, but I’d forgotten the peace of Big Bay in winter. Instead of the sound of the waves kissing the shore, the frogs croaking, and the loons calling, all you can hear at Big Bay in the winter is the wind as it blows the dusty top layer of crystallized snowflakes gently across the frozen expanse of the bay. The flat, snow-covered lake against overcast sky made it impossible to see the horizon. Everything had been whitewashed. The glare was so bright it made me remember that snow-blindness is a thing, and I was grateful that I had at least one piece of proper gear: sunglasses.

I walked out on the lake that I’d been skinny dipping in just a few months before, my feet crunching on the snow with each step instead of my toes sinking into the sand, and stared into the white void ahead, engulfed by the same sense of peace in my many layers of hoodies as I had been when I’d slipped naked beneath the surface of the water I was now standing on. Despite the cold I could’ve spent a lot more time enjoying the solitude of Big Bay. The feeling of absolute isolation was intoxicating. I was only on Madeline Island for about an hour. I could’ve spent days cross-country skiing and snowmobiling, sitting by a fire and staring at the stars, but I had a plane to catch, so I set off back towards the car. Miraculously, I made it back in one piece, without injury, and only a couple spots of frostbite (in the spots where my jeans had holes). As is always the case, even in winter, my visit home to Madeline Island was enchanting.