Ask any of the 400 or so year-round residents of Madeline Island about the ferry that motors back and forth on Lake Superior from Bayfield, Wis., and invariably they’ll use the word “lifeline” to describe its importance to their day-to-day lives.
The Madeline Island Ferry Line’s five boats carry locals and their vehicles on the 25-minute trip across to the island. They also carry workers back and forth and, of course, throngs of tourists in the summer.
The ferry hauls the mail, groceries, propane tanks, beer, lumber and appliances.
It also takes students to and from school on the mainland. And when there’s an emergency on the island, a boat is always on standby so patients can make it quickly across the lake for health care.
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When Glenn Carlson, an accountant who’s lived on the island for nearly 20 years, became chair of the board of the town of La Pointe a couple years ago, he understood the ferry’s existential importance to the island.
So he asked the current owners of the ferry line about their plans for the future. He already knew the two families who own the business didn’t have a natural succession plan.
“We were very fortunate to have the families that have long, long roots here on the island owning the ferry line. It would be quite a different situation to have, say, a hedge fund in New York owning the ferry line,” Carlson said.
The fear, said La Pointe town administrator Michael Kuchta, is that an out-of-town owner may run the ferry during the profitable summer tourist season — but drastically curtail service in the winter, when year-round residents rely on it for their connection to the mainland.
“To put that in the hands of a private entity that probably would not have roots in the island, that would probably try to squeeze as much profit out of the operation as they can, that jeopardizes our quality of life and jeopardizes the ability of the island to be a year-round entity,” Kuchta said.
Last October, the town formed a harbor commission and began negotiating with the owners of the ferry to purchase the business and transfer its assets to public ownership.
Town officials submitted an $11 million grant to the U.S. Department of Transportation and hope to move forward with a purchase later this year.
But it’s a complex transaction. There are still many financial and operational hurdles to clear, yet the sense of urgency to secure the ferry’s future grows because of a warming climate.
Historically every winter, Lake Superior would freeze solid enough for residents and visitors to drive back and forth between Bayfield and Madeline Island on an ice road. And the ferry would shut down for the season.
But in four out of the past eight winters, including this one, the ice never grew thick enough to safely drive over it, and the ferry has been forced to operate year round.
“We are the canary in the mine,” said Robin Trinko Russell, vice president of finance for Madeline Island Ferry. “Climate change is not our friend.”
Russell has worked for the ferry line for about 40 years, her husband Gary even longer. When he first learned to drive the boat, he was so small he had to stand on a milk crate.
“It's kind of like the farmer's son who drives a tractor when they can't quite reach the pedals,” said Russell.
For years, the business ran like clockwork. The ferry has records dating back to 1965 that show the date the last boat operated in the winter, and the date the first ferry ran in the spring.
For more than 30 years, the ferry shut down in December or January, when the ice became too thick for the boats to plow through, and strong enough to support an ice road. Every year service started back up again in March or April.
That changed in 1998, when for the first time, the ferry ran straight through the winter. In eight additional years since, the ferry line either did not shut down or stopped running only for a week or two.
When the ice road failed to open in the winters of 2016 and 2017, the ferry ran for more than 1,000 consecutive days.
“And that’s really tough on the crew,” Russell said. “We need those breaks. I mean, it's a good time for people to take time off to kind of reset. We get a lot of maintenance done.”
It’s also more expensive to run the ferry in the winter: It requires more staffing, and plowing through several inches of ice takes a toll on the boats.
“Our summer business subsidizes our busy winter business,” Russell acknowledged.
Russell declined to comment on why her family — and co-owners the Nelson Family — want to sell the business they have owned and operated for decades. But she said they welcomed the formation of the Harbor Commission to identify the best way to secure ferry service to the Island into the future.
The loss of a consistent ice road is hard on the ferry line. It’s also tough for residents who relish the ability it provides, if only for a few months out of the year, to come and go as they please.
“It’s a strange freedom,” said Michael Childers, who runs Madeline Island Candles in a small house across from the ferry dock. “You can go when you choose, and it has no cost. So losing that is a bit of a sadness.”
Childers is also president of the newly formed harbor commission. He said a changing climate also means the business model of the ferry line has to evolve to figure out a way to make increased winter operations sustainable.
“The movement to a public utility that works for the public would, in my view, guarantee that access without worry of profitability for a business that needs to make money for its owners,” Childers said.
Backers of the town’s efforts to purchase the ferry believe that placing it under public ownership could also improve service, by increasing the number of ferry trips while also, hopefully, lowering prices. A round trip ticket costs $17 per person, and an additional $31 to transport a small vehicle.
“Trying to find a way to use the cash flow to provide a less expensive transportation option for the citizens of the town, and trying to find a way to expand the service that the ferry line can provide, are really two principal goals,” said Childers.
Residents grumble because ferry service has contracted over the past couple decades, said Kuchta, the town administrator.
“The early boats aren't as early, the late boats aren't as late,” he said.
That makes it hard for residents to make it to Duluth or the Twin Cities for a medical appointment and back in the same day, Kuchta said. It hinders the ability of people to commute to and from the island for work.
And it has an impact on the regional economy, said Jay Wiltz, who owns and operates two restaurants on the island and is strongly in favor of the town taking over the ferry. He said decreased late-night ferry service has hurt business.
“I am super-supportive of it,” he said. “The ferry line is a direct umbilical to the livelihood and ability to exist here for all locals, and it's also a direct link to the economy.”
Local officials also hope to add a ferry so students who attend school in Bayfield could also take part in sports and other extracurriculars.
“If it comes to a public utility that the town owns, and the town has a huge interest in the school kids that live here, I think the town could figure out a way to pay for a 6 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. ferry,” said Carlson, the town board chair.
The harbor commission is still investigating financing options and figuring out a possible business model for the ferry line.
The hope is to subcontract with the existing ferry line to operate the business at the direction of the commission.
“The town recognizes it doesn't have the expertise or the competence to run a ferry line,” said Childers. “But the ferry line does. So we wanted to keep that in place.”
The commission will learn if it’s been awarded the U.S. Department of Transportation grant this summer, and is also pursuing other sources of state and federal funding. It is also considering the purchase of revenue bonds and using profits from running the ferry to pay off debt.
“The hope is to not put it into a position where it's directly on the taxpayer,” Childers said,” adding that the final purchase price could likely exceed the $11 million grant application.
Officials are hopeful the purchase will go through. The federal grant application has bipartisan support from Wisconsin politicians who recognize the importance of Madeline Island’s economy to the regional economy.
“It is the lifeline of the island,” said Kuchta. “It is too important for the town, the businesses, the residents, the seasonal residents and the visitors to wait and see what happens. We need to … really ensure the security and the prosperity of the town moving forward.”