It’s a strange twist that the age of modern convenience has made being stuck a greater hardship. Even without the many farms and fishing camps that once dotted Madeline, residents could go without supplies for a couple of weeks (the longest stretch being twenty-seven days in the mid-eighties). Without some kind of vehicle to bridge the boating and driving seasons, children in sixth grade and above would have no way to get to school. (Madeline Island has one elementary school.) The island has no medical facilities and no Coast Guard service in winter. With thirty-thousand square miles of freezing water surrounding the Apostle Islands and no one to call for emergency rescues, fishermen, snowmobilers, and wayward drivers would be out of luck, if it hadn’t been for island folk tinkering in their garages to create one of the most curious vessels in transportation history. Necessity was the mother of the windsled. (Cabin fever was the midwife, perhaps.) It is an amphibious craft that, like a hybrid boat-plane-sled, flies across the frozen channel, floats when it breaks through, and remounts the ice like a hefty sea lion. With its huge airplane propeller mounted on the back, the Nelson windsled looks like a swamp boat, but with runner skis beneath the hull, it glides like a sled, taking the water like any stalwart cruiser. For the five minutes it takes to cross, it has the wind chill and deafening sound of an open-cockpit airplane in jolting turbulence. Depending on conditions, the journey can refresh like a swift sleigh ride, or it can sicken like a lurching dinghy. The novice passenger is generally not silenced by the noise alone. It’s the feeling of defying a lake that could kill you in five to ten minutes.
Island life is filled with dichotomies. Islanders have an odd battle of philosophic independence from the mainland and an interdependence among themselves that is both intensely supportive and sometimes uneasy. The result is a brand of frontier mentality. “We live here because it’s difficult,” said Tommy. But Madeline’s also cocooned, an isle where difference, even if it sometimes matures into outright eccentricity, is safe. There is the island versus the mainland (many mainland civil codes were thrown out over the years); there is the old-world economy of self-sustaining fishermen and farmers versus the new tourist economy of sea kayakers and beachcombers; there is the devil-may-care spirit of this Nelson versus the sense of civic responsibility of that Nelson. And, of course, there is the local versus the tourist. (Islanders identify October as the best month to celebrate “summer”—without the tourists. They gratefully welcome them back in June, like an outpost station waiting for tobacco.) And perhaps the greatest dichotomy: All this divergence creates a community tune that is vibrantly melodic.
Positioned center stage in this import/export drama is the windsled—and, in turn, the two men who carry on the tradition of running it. “It’s just in my family blood,” said Arnie, who took over operations with his brother Ronnie in 1979, when their father, Harry Nelson, passed away after running it for twenty years. “It’s just something that we do.” Last year, the Town of La Pointe purchased their family windsled along with two new ones and began to pay the Nelsons a salary for the ten trips they run daily, on average. Until last year, Arnie said, it was “a very expensive hobby” that cost the family between twelve thousand and fifteen thousand dollars a year from 1979 onward (approximately $324,000 in losses). It was no caprice—the Nelsons were permanently on call. Arnie recounted being away on business in Madison when his brother injured his back. “I was in a car wash, and I got the call to come back immediately, that the ice road had broken up. I said to leave my snowmobile on the mainland, and by the time I got there it was darker than hell and the ice had gone out at the approach. There was just enough ice to get back to the island.” From there, he could fire up the windsled.
Arnie and Ronnie are the icemen. They pack and cart all the mail (you think you hate junk mail); they shuttle passengers, school kids, and animals; they deliver all the freight, including entire sleds filled with beer and lumber; they transport DNR officers out to Stockton Island; they pick up fishermen’s nets; and they are on call for any emergency that might come up. “I’ve taken everything across that needs to get here,” Arnie said, as we sat in the only bar on the island that stays open through the winter. “I brought Ed Lohman over from Bayfield in his casket and pulled right up in front of the church with the windsled and unloaded him for his funeral.” He pointed to a man sitting at the bar. “I took Billy’s wife over in labor. He and I were in here getting shit-faced about one-thirty in the morning. And there’s a call: ‘Arnie, you have to go to Bayfield.’ Oh, no!” he laughed the deep laugh that all Nelsons seem to share. “I’ve probably taken three women across in labor, a couple of stretchers, pulled a few out of the lake that were pretty white by the time I got them to Bayfield. I’ve fished several snowmobiles out of the lake from people that never managed to get out. And when the divers have found their bodies, I’ve taken them, too.”
He does confess to having to see a chiropractor several times during the season from the ice pounding. And very reluctantly he admits to having felt something akin to fear when the tires of the student van once punched through the ice road. Arnie sustains the captain’s ethic, the go-down-with-the-ship guts, and any windsled mishaps have been leveled into an understated account of how he and his vessel did their job and got through. “We’ve never broken down, although we’ve been close. The sled has broken into the lake and taken a long time to find a big enough piece of ice that would hold a full load of people to get up on again,” he admitted. “And I did run out of gas once—worked the engine too hard getting back up on the ice. Walked to the island, got gas, came back. The passengers just waited. What else were they gonna do?”
Arnie’s cousin Charles Nelson is the family historian. He’s in the process of assembling a windsled museum, a natural outgrowth of his work as an author—he documented Madeline’s windsled history in a charming book called On Thin Ice. He’s not just a devout chronicler, but also an active member of the windsled rescue squad. “Chuckie” has both the tousled look of a historian and the inventive eye of an engineer, which makes it seem as though he is reading schematics over your shoulder. “In the beginning, there was nothing manufactured, just guys in their garages, often without electricity or necessary tools, building them,” he explained in a rush of words, trying to catch up to the speed of thought. “They used anything available—airplane hulls purchased for forty dollars, skis or wheels, wire, bed linens, bed springs, buggy slats, junk cars…”
Charles detailed how it was often a tragedy or a close call that would demand necessary windsled modifications. Like a more renegade history of Ford, the windsled has gone through many improvements and generations. A brake system was designed after a driver lost course and couldn’t reduce speed on the glare ice—he had to drag a chisel out the door to stop. In 1945, the “Maybe” (thus christened because maybe it could get across and maybe it couldn’t) went through the ice in shallow water and the doors wouldn’t open; the “Maybe II” was a less enclosed runner-sled on skis—a trade of comfort for safety. When the “Maybe II” later went through thin ice and sank to a depth of one hundred feet, losing a freight of groceries, the “Dream Sled” was designed explicitly to be a floating hull. (It worked: Charles’s father, Elmer Nelson, himself a maverick windsled designer, used “Dream Sled” to save the lives of three fishermen; he jumped into the lake to rescue the final man.)
It wasn’t only life-or-death matters that inspired reinvention. Even the loss of the groceries off the “Maybe II” spurred Elmer Nelson to design a special clam-bucket tool for underwater salvage: “I was single with a lot of time on my hands,” Elmer explained in On Thin Ice, “so I decided to try to retrieve the groceries. It would have all been worth my time if I had retrieved the canned peaches because that was really what I was after, but all I seemed to get was mustard, pigs feet, and canned milk…which because of the pressure at that depth were all squared cans.” Perhaps to punctuate the story for his museum, Charles still hopes to recover the symbolic peaches, using film footage of the “Maybe II” being pulled out of the lake to determine just where the groceries went down.