It wasn’t love, but it was enough to risk his life for. It was the first morning of 1992 at five a.m. on Madeline Island and the bar had emptied out when Tommy Nelson, the ponytailed owner of Tommy’s Burned Down Café, spun out onto Lake Superior in his 1972 Cadillac Fleetwood and was surprised that the ice held. He already had the record for the earliest crossing: Two years before, he’d driven the two-and-a-half miles of ice to mainland Bayfield, Wisconsin, in a one-ton Chevy Van only fifteen days after the ferries had quit running. But more than that was the confidence that came from being from a long line of indestructible islanders—the Nelson clan, who, among other things, had run the ferries, windsled, and ice road for years. In the passenger seat of the Fleetwood was Tommy’s twenty-one-year-old cousin, Brian Nelson, also a tester of lake fate. Even so, he objected to this foolhardy attempt, and perhaps it was this challenge less than the girl or the booze that made Tommy go through with it. Fifteen days before the ferry quit running, weeks before the amphibious windsled navigated across the channel, and a month before the ice road opened to cars, Tommy gunned it. It’s easy to imagine Tommy’s thin, tan face in a wild grin, his signature Hawaiian shirt despite the cold, and his startling pirate’s laugh at the deliciousness of danger. Twelve years later, he calls it a mix of courage and stupidity. His brother, Arnie Nelson, is in a position to be professionally critical of his brother’s behavior. Arnie is the unofficial commissioner of winter transport. With thirty years’ experience shuttling island residents and children to school on the windsled, and the only authority trusted to open or close the ice road, he thought differently. “You sit up at that bar,” said Arnie, his voice both authoritative and playful, “and the ice gets thicker real fast. I could hold the record if I wanted, but I can’t. People follow me. And it’s the ones behind you who can have problems with the cracks you made.”
But Tommy has always devoted himself to making cracks in the norm. Besides, isolation was not what the man—a bar owner, after all, who greeted you in the summer with a hearty “Welcome to paradise!”—was willing to accept.
“I had no intention of going to Bayfield, but boredom being what it is… Or, as Jimmy Buffet said, ‘I just shot five holes in my freezer, I think I have cabin fever.’ And then there was this girl,” said Tommy. “The record is always set by islanders for an obvious reason: to get the hell off the island.”
They made it across, perhaps flipping an ice cake or two behind, hitting the ice curb on the beach, flatting their tires. And the girl, new record not withstanding, was asleep in Bayfield. “You never get the girl at five a.m.,” Tommy said sagely. “This was extreme sports before they were invented. Sometimes you just have to get off the Rock. Especially when a Nelson is rutting.”
Isolation is the last thing you think about on Madeline Island in the summer. The local population of 220 swells to over 2,500 in the high season, with the ferry chugging back and forth all day every day. Tourists from Chicago, the Twin Cities, and farther away overwhelm the fourteen-mile-long island. It’s an eclectic crowd of family budget travelers, wealthy yacht clubbers, bikers, snowbirds, bohemians, and descendents of early island settlers who all miraculously converge under the glowing tent of Tommy’s Burned Down Café, an outdoor bar/monument to irreverence. (“Let’s Make Getting in Trouble Fun Again” is among the many signs posted on the premises.) Eastern Europeans wait tables, artists arrive to make metal sculptures in the annual “Wrestle With Steel,” kids pack in for the music camp, preppy vessels proliferate in the harbor. Show up on a summer weekend without a reservation, as I did once, and you’re lucky to be lent a spare tent to sleep on the beach.
Yet while the world arrives in fleets during the summer, there is a period during the winter when Lake Superior would become an impassable moat if not for generations of islanders inventing ways to bridge themselves to the world once again. When temperatures drop to freezing, Chequamegon Bay freezes in layers, the ice penned in between the Apostle Islands and the mainland. Generally, the windward side of Madeline doesn’t freeze (only three times in recorded history has Lake Superior frozen entirely). Beyond the islands, a frigid ocean of open water and drifting ice extends to Michigan.
The durable ferries mount a slow fight against the ice, first shattering the glass plates, then slicing and reslicing a channel each day until the weight of the vessels can no longer break a path through ten inches of ice. The battle can exhaust captain and passengers alike: Last year, the ferry took a record nine hours to get across, instead of the usual twenty-three minutes. What follows is a period of time when nothing but a plane can make the jump from mainland to island. It’s then that the islanders perversely start to wish for colder, nastier weather so the bay will freeze to support an ice road, liberating them from their dependence on the Nelson family ferries. When the ice road is declared safe, there are no more timetables or fees. People can journey to the mainland on a whim. The irony is that while the island offers an escape from the mainland much of the year, locals feel most free when the island ceases to exist as an island and is annexed by ice to the mainland. Madeline could be called a part-time island: Just when cabin fever is setting in, nature remedies it with the ice road.
But there is the trouble of waiting through the freeze-up, the limbo of unstable ice in January before the ice road can support unrestricted traffic. This transitional period is mirrored in spring, when the ice grays as it weakens. The water that normally collects on the surface of the ice road because of surface melting from the sun (they call it “the island carwash”) disappears and you worry; “candling” has riddled the ice with holes that drain the meltwater. Seagulls ominously start to circle above the warm currents of the sandbar. Small herring or smelt may appear on the ice road, attracted up through the holes by the light. It’s during this in-between time when they no longer have the freedom of their own boat or car, or even the ferry, that the islanders would be stuck—if not for inventing their own way off the “Rock.”