As the sun got higher and the temperatures crept up, Madeline Island residents knew the end was near.
On Friday, Arnie Nelson made it official — the 2¼-mile Lake Superior ice road connecting islanders to Bayfield, Wis., is closed for the season.
"It warms up, the ice melts," Nelson, the longtime keeper of the ice road, said matter-of-factly.
Some of the island's 250 winter residents reveled when subfreezing temperatures this year created a sheet of ice thick enough to drive over, freeing them from the expense and scheduling limits of a ferry. The mid-January opening of the road was especially welcome because warm winters prevented the water from freezing the past two seasons, making it the first time the road hadn't opened two years in a row.
This winter's cold meant the ice road was open 69 days, said Evan Erickson, a lifelong island resident and publisher of the local Island Gazette. "It means you're like any other town. You can come and go whenever you want."
And then the seasons change. With spring inching its way into the northern reaches of Wisconsin, residents will soon be back on the ferry.
The ice has gotten soft, potholes have opened and the beach sand is no longer frozen.
"You can't get through the sand with a two-wheel-drive vehicle, and the big four-wheel drives make big ruts," Nelson said. In addition, the ice along the edges is breaking up.
"So that's where we are right now," Nelson said.
Asked if this is usual for this time of year, Nelson quipped: "There's nothing normal about living up here."
Earlier this week, Nelson closed the ice road for everyone but island residents with four-wheel-drive vehicles. On Friday, he closed it to everyone except himself and the nine-passenger vans he uses to shuttle people between the island and Bayfield.
"It's safe because I'm driving," Nelson said. "I know where I'm going."
With 6 to 10 inches of snow predicted overnight, Nelson said he'll decide Saturday morning whether the vans will have to be parked and the windsleds put into service shuttling people across in the airboat-type vehicles.
"When the ice gets really rotten, the ferries will start up," he said.
He has no complaints about winter and the time he spends out on the frozen lake. "It's God's country," he said. "It's been a long, good winter."