There's so much ice on Lake Superior this January that, for the first time in three winters, the Madeline Island ferry is closed for the season.
And at least some island residents are happy about it.
After 1,019 days of continuous operation, the vessels transporting vehicles, goods and passengers from the Lake Superior island to Bayfield, Wis., are getting some needed rest and extra time for maintenance, thanks to frigid temperatures thickening ice.
The island's approximately 250 year-round residents will now be relying on airboat-type "windsleds" that glide across the ice to get to school and appointments on the mainland until — they hope — an ice road opens soon between the two land masses.
"When the ice road opens up, it is freedom!" exclaimed Madeline Island fire chief Rick Reichkitzer. "You can go over and buy a sandwich or a cup of coffee and not pay the ferry fare."
"People don't understand unless they live out here that you have to schedule your whole life around the ferry schedule," added Town of La Pointe Administrator Lisa Potswald. After the holidays, the last ferry back to the island is typically in late afternoon, she said, limiting residents' nightlife. "We like to go over to Bayfield and have supper ... That's just really a treat for us."
Shutting down the ferries for the winter used to be standard practice, said the ferry company's Marine Operations Manager, Mike Radtke. Every year, when the ice got too thick for even ice-breaking ferries to plow through, the season would end. Residents could count on ferries hibernating from the first or second week of January through late March or early April.
"That was kind of the rhythm of living on the island," Radtke said.
It was what the business expected, too: "It allowed us to reduce our expenses and work on some maintenance that isn't possible during the operating season."
But then, about 17 years ago, Radtke said, the ferry service had its first year-round operating season that anybody can remember.
"Since then ... we've had six," Radtke said. "It's a pretty dramatic change ... It does feel kind of good to have things back."
Anticipating the ferry's closure this season, businesses and residents scrambled the past few weeks to bring extra supplies of propane and other heavy goods to the island to last them through the winter.
Now, the anticipation of driving vehicles over the ice is palpable for the first time in years.
It's up to local officials to decide when ice is safe enough to plow a road approximately 2 miles long. Potswald said higher temperatures this week may mean a bit of delay; officials should know more by the end of the week, she said.
Reichkitzer said he will appreciate the isolation that comes when passenger-only windsleds are the only service operating to and from the island. But he looks forward to the unusual opportunity of coming and going whenever he pleases and as often as he wants.
"The ice road is free," he said gleefully. "Unless your car goes through."
But don't worry. He's only seen that happen three times in his 17 years there.
Ice caves still iffy
While an ice road is also somewhat of a tourist draw, locals are hoping the low temperatures will bring back accessibility — and an economic boost — to an even more popular nearby attraction: Lake Superior's spectacular ice caves at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
More than 138,000 visitors hiked atop the frozen lake to see the awe-inspiring, icicle-draped sandstone cliffs and caves along the mainland in 2014, after word of their beauty went viral on social media. The deluge of visitors brought more than $10 million to the local economy.
But despite the appearance of a big sheet of ice, the conditions aren't good yet this year, Park Superintendent Bob Krumenaker said.
"We were out there over the weekend and the ice is in horrible condition," he said. "It's basically blown-in pack ice jumbled together."
Shards or "shark fins" are protruding and 6-12 inches of snow covers what feel like bowling balls, Krumenaker said. Right now the ice is neither thick enough to be considered safe nor smooth enough for snowmobiles to navigate in case of an emergency, he said.
At the very earliest, it would be the end of the month before conditions could be safe enough, he said. Most years, the caves aren't accessible until mid- to late-February, he added.
"Everyone is just antsy right now," he said.
Caution, he added "makes people a lot more confident when we finally do open it."