LA POINTE — On New Year's Day the Madeline Island ferry trudged through the chunky ice of Lake Superior, making its final journey between Bayfield and the remote island community of La Pointe until next spring.
This year's decision to shut down ferry service came more than a month earlier than it has in the recent past, Madeline Island Ferry Line officials said.
"This is unusually early," Marine Operations Manager Mike Radtke said. "But ice conditions as they are, we didn't want to push it."
The prevalence of heavy ice meant the trip, which normally takes between 15 and 20 minutes, was sometimes taking close to an hour, he said.
Left without ferry service, La Pointe locals' access to the grocery stores, medical services and social scenes of the mainland is limited. They must now cross the lake in one of the windsleds operated by brothers Arnie and Ron Nelson. The windsled will start their regular route times on Monday, but unlike the ferries, which can carry vehicles, the windsleds can only transport people and cargo.
On Wednesday and Thursday, many island residents used the ferry to take a vehicle to Bayfield and park it, so it will be waiting for them when they get off the windsled and need to drive to places like
Once the ice road is ready — a much-anticipated occurrence that's happened lately in mid-February — La Pointe residents will have the freedom to drive themselves over the lake. But until then, this already isolated community of 250 residents is left in an even more secluded winter state.
Not that it's necessarily a bad thing.
"I love it because I deal with about 1,000 people a day in the summer," said Ted Pallas, a year-round island resident who works for the town's solid waste and recycling center. "I love how in the winter, you can shoot a rifle down
Not that he'd actually do that, Pallas quickly added, though he does like knowing that he could, should the mood strike.
He was joined by several friends and acquaintances at the Bell Street Tavern, the only island business that was open New Year's Day, and the only bar in the community that consistently stays open through the winter. Many lamented the fervor with which they'd approached the previous night's celebrations, which had been held, of course, in the very same spot.
Chelsa Nelson, 23, is a former resident of La Pointe and Bayfield who now lives in
"It's a very different mentality in the winter than in the summer," she said. "When this is the only place open, the entire community is in one place; you associate with everybody. In the summer, everyone's so busy and there's so many people here that you don't.
"The community kind of comes back together in the winter."
La Pointe resident Scott Grabarek seemed content to stay close to the island for the time being; as a money-saving measure, he doesn't take the ferry that often anyway, he said.
"Contrary to what everybody thinks on the mainland, not everybody over here are millionaires," he mused.
Logistically, it could be a little tougher for people to get their basic needs met on the island this year, Grabarek said. Last fall, he and Chelsa Nelson said, someone drove their car through the community's sole grocery store, rendering the shop inoperable over the winter.
To deal, Grabarek loaded up on rations when he visited relatives over Christmas, and he hopes his stockpile will last him until the ice road materializes.
Others like Pallas said that when grocery shopping calls, they would eschew the windsled in favor of snowmobiling to the mainland.
"I feel more freedom, and it doesn't cost me 10 bucks; it costs me $2," Pallas said.
For some, the early cessation of the ferry's service is a welcome sign that the ice road will show up sooner than it usually does.
"If the weather keeps up like this, we'll have one of the earliest ice roads we've had in years," Grabarek said. "That'd be nice. That'd be really nice, because usually the earlier it starts, the longer it lasts."
Bayfield resident Dolly Schneeberger, who works at the Bell Street Tavern, took the last possible ferry home from the island Thursday.
As she stepped off the boat, the former island resident gushed over the prospect of an early arriving ice road and the mobility it will bring.
"This year, everybody's excited because, yay! We get to go back and forth without having to wait for a ferry boat," she said.
"Everybody's just excited to have an early ice road," she added. "It's freedom; it's freedom from the island."
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