For most of the year, the only way to get to Madeline Island, off the coast of Bayfield, is by boat. But during the winter, a brief window of difficulty exists. It’s the moment when the ice around Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands gets too thick for boats to break through, but isn’t yet thick enough to support an ice road. That’s when residents leave their cars on the mainland, take only what they can carry, and climb aboard the wind sled.
That moment happened this week on Lake Superior.
Imagine a jumbo 10-15 passenger plastic sled. Then cover it with an oversized pickup topper and put a few big fans on the back, and that’s about what you’re working with. To be fair, there are a few padded benches inside, and a heater, and hearing protection set out for passengers to use. And that’s better than the back of a pickup. But really, this experience is just about as Wisconsin as it gets. You’ll have to climb in. And hold on. It’s about to get bumpy.
This rig isn’t the most fuel-efficient vehicle on the ice, so the trip will set you back $10 cash each way. But that’s a steal for those who need it.
Nathan Nelson is a third-generation wind sled driver, personally in his tenth year behind the wheel for Windsled Transportation, Inc.
“It started as a family business, it still is, but now we’re contracted through the town,” he explains.
He’s seen a lot of ice in his lifetime. Ice cover on Lake Superior is a whole topic in itself. But Nelson says it’s been less as of late. “It used to be guaranteed every year, but since I’ve started running it, there’s been three years where the boats have run all year.”
It’s a quick ride out to the island on the sled, faster than a ferry. The fans make carrying on a conversation pretty tough. And with every drift and icey ridge, riders can feel the floor flex beneath their feet. Nelson explains why.
“This wind sled is too big. We’ve had to repair it multiple times. It was cheaper to buy two new sleds than to fix the hull on this one. It flexes and cracks, which makes for a smoother ride. But you can only weld it so many times, it has to be able to float.”
Which makes it a bit of a risky job. After all, a loaded sled weighs as much a full-sized pickup truck, if not more. Isn’t it dangerous to put that much weight on such thin ice?
“It can be, but that’s why we’re out here every day, multiple times a day, checking the ice, checking the conditions, checking the weather, well before we start running, while we’re running, and well after,” Nelson says.
“We take every precaution, trust me. If someone falls through, they’re probably where they shouldn’t be.”
Some residents have snowmobiles they cross with. But the wind sled is still essential to the island’s businesses, and the 302 people that call it home. Just this week, the island’s police chief, William Defoe, carried the island’s first shipment of COVID-19 vaccine across on the sled. Residents who need medical attention would likely get a ride on it too. And students are in virtual school this week, but otherwise they too would take the sled to attend school in Bayfield.
Ready for your own polar adventure? The public can take the wind sled, but be aware, capacity is limited and you’ll need your own transportation once you arrive on the island. Dress warm. Bring a mask, and cash. The sled departs from the landing to the left of the Madeline Island Ferry building in Bayfield, and takes you to the landing on the island, not the ferry dock. Visit their website for the schedule and up to date details.
UPDATE: February has been a difficult month for residents of Madeline Island. The ice road opened, and closed again as Lake Superior formed a dangerous pressure ridge. The image below shows the severity of such a ridge, and the video following documents the wind sled attempting to flatten the ridge.