The most precious cargo, of course, continues to be the island’s schoolchildren. When I asked Arnie about this considerable responsibility, he stiffened up, a bit of the truancy officer in his eye. The rules reeled off his tongue without effort, a speech he must have given hundreds of times. “If you get in underdressed, you’ll get your ass chewed out by me,” he said. “You have to be prepared to walk if it breaks down. I’ve sent kids home that have come in tennis shoes. I’ve said, ‘This is your first warning. Do it again and you’re going back.’”
Thirty-year-old island resident Clair Coleman was one of the children who repeatedly heard such warnings. “We’d break down and the guys would have to give us their coats because we were in miniskirts and flats. Here it was twenty below and the guys were all in Sorrels, but not my sister and I.” Clair, a proud islander who has recently taken up the hobby of spinning fire chains (imagine twirling nunchuks, only with flaming chains), recounted how twenty years ago she and her friends would pray for the windsled to break down so they could escape having to wait on the steps of the school for an hour before school started. “We got there before the janitors. The teachers would come, and we’d be there with our snow-matted hair, all green from the trip.”
Recent graduate Alan Hardie agreed: “Unless it was below zero, they wouldn’t let us go inside school. We’d all huddle in the booth outside, where they pasted the brochures. And they always found a way to get us to school. Arnie once had me on the back of his one-person snowmobile going like a hundred to school. I was just flopping around.”
Alex Sowl, who graduated in 2001, rode the windsled for eighteen years. “It was always like this: Bigger kids sit in back and keep the shovels in their hands. And no matter who you are, you have to plug your ears or you aren’t going to hear again.” Some days the kids would have to spend the night on the mainland during a whiteout, and other days they’d intentionally miss the windsled. Parents would buy such excuses because they didn’t have much choice.
Mainland students were jealous. “I wanted to be an island kid!” said Gina Wiltz, who is now a comfortable island resident and part owner of the Bellstreet Tavern, the main restaurant/bar in winter months, serving islanders as both meeting hall and celebratory pub. “They always got to go home early. The word would come over the intercom: ‘All island kids have to leave.’ They’d all go, ‘Yeah!’ We had snow days. And they had wave days and soft-ice days and snow days too. From a kid’s point of view, that was the good part about living on the island. Now my kids will get it, I suppose.”
“It was always loud and obnoxious and always an experience,” recalled Clair. “All those times that the windsled would go halfway and break down and we’d have to walk. Or the time we were coming home from school and we hit all these bumps and the mail got pushed back near the exhaust pipes. It started on fire and Ronnie, the driver, had his earmuffs on, no cares in the world, just island bound. And I started tapping him on the shoulder yelling, ‘Fire!’ But to him it was just another fire.”
Tommy Nelson remembered how a package got caught in the propeller. “It was instantly airmailed,” he laughed, pulling at his ponytail. “The propeller broke, but we had two, so it was fine. It’s a normal school bus to me. It’s amazing what you can get used to. Some women can get used to being beaten by their partners. This is normal for us. You live on an island. You have to get off.”
Betsy Coleman, Clair’s sister, jubilantly added another story: A new resident who had just gotten a boob job got on the windsled and asked where the most gentle place to sit was. The other passengers pointed to the front seat—the one that was notorious for pounding.
Only one man has died as a result of windsled malfunction. He was mortally wounded when an early propeller flew off. Just so, the climate for invention and test-piloting new crafts on Madeline Island is suffering from modern financial constraints and the expectations of insurance agencies, even though windsleds can be credited with saving countless lives. If necessity was the mother of the windsled, politicians and risk assessors seem to be abducting the island brainchild.
“The insurance is killing us on these windsleds,” explained Charles. “You can’t afford them now unless you get a grant.” Even the school van has been a headache to deal with. It was logical for islanders to design extra flotation devices for it too, just in case the unthinkable happened. But the insurance company nixed the idea by jacking the premium up $25,000, according to Charles. “They said, ‘What do you mean this van’s going to float? You’re going in the water with kids?’ They got all excited. What they couldn’t seem to understand was that the flotation wasn’t so that we could go in water, it was in case we went in water.”
Tommy Nelson is, as usual, fed up with the powers that be. While Nelson “stuff” has gone to make the windsled out of box springs and car parts, Tommy explained, the town has sued him to clean up his yard, a place rife with the “stuff” he thinks comes in handy to the artists he sponsors in his annual welding fest, “Wrestle With Steel.” “Diplomatic immunity just isn’t what it used to be,” Tommy sighed. “Now that the town owns the windsleds, you can’t just get a bunch of friends and go to town anymore. It used to be okay for consenting adults willing to risk their lives to go out and have a party. I don’t think we got any drunker then; it was just more fun because we didn’t have the rest of the world telling us what we can and cannot do. Insurance companies rule the world, and the whole Nelson family tradition of risking their lives to improve windsleds is screwed.”
Maybe, as Charles pointed out, in the days of wooden ships, men were made of steel; now with steel ships, men are made of wood. Congressman Dave Obey defended the funding of Madeline’s new “Ice Angel” windsled against the current administration, which tried to impugn windsled funding as “pork”: “From the seat in a Washington bureaucrat’s office, that rescue vehicle may seem like a frill, but not from a hole in the ice in Chequamegon Bay.” The burden of rescue is on the island—and it’s a burden made weighty by insurance and politics. Still, it’s hard to believe that anything less than draining Lake Superior will keep island windsled enthusiasts from breaking new ice.
In the meantime, offseason tourists can consider heading to the jewel of Lake Superior for a historic ride…unless, of course, the ice road is bad and the Packers are losing, as Tommy warned, “Then don’t bother to come to Madeline Island at all.” Typically, Arnie disagreed. “No, if we’re in the playoff games or the Super Bowl, the windsled schedule is subject to change. Only then will it be tough to get to the island.”
Ask about Favre’s errant throw, and you’ll get the pounding seat up front.