Islands fascinate me. Though they vary wildly in size and population – the mind boggles comparing Manhattan Island (22 square miles, almost two million residents) with Kahoolawe, the smallest in Hawaii (45 square miles and completely deserted). Think of all the great mysteries set on an island just big enough for a few cabins, a lodge, and dense woods, from which the murderer can only escape at night, in a fishing boat steered by the stars. To be surrounded by water is to be either hopelessly isolated or blessedly alone. Still, you have to get supplies eventually.
So I was entranced on our first trip to Bayfield, Wisconsin, which is just 2.5 miles from Madeline Island, the largest of the twenty-two Apostle Islands. We’ve spent time in Bayfield ten times now, mostly in mid-spring, when the water is deep blue but not exactly swimmable. You can get to Madeline Island in 20 minutes by ferry, so there’s no feeling of being cut off from civilization while you’re there. Spend the afternoon riding a rented bike, then ferry back to the mainland for supper at the Rittenhouse Hotel.
This year, we went in March, arriving just after the north country’s last blizzard. The bay was hard and flat, a lid of ice firmly shut over the waves. Just as in Dubuque, winter was holding on. The roads were clear and dry, but edged with sparkling white drifts, and many roofs, despite the brilliant sun, were covered in stubborn white blankets.
Some of the stores and restaurants weren’t yet open, but otherwise it was business as usual. We tourists were few enough in number to recognize each other as we made our way from the book store to the gift shop to the coffeehouse, the place with the brilliant baker and free wi-fi. Lattes, cookies, and a view of the bay – I could have gone there every day.
Some people live on Madeline Island year-round, hardy souls who enjoy getting away from the madding crowd. Still, even the most determined hermit has to eat, and you can’t grow a garden in the snow. I imagine they like getting their mail, too, and that even the most well-stocked pantry must run low by March.
So I was enchanted to notice a line of trees – medium-size pines, Christmas trees – running from the shore of Bayfield all the way across the bay to the shore of Madeline Island. We could see tracks, and figured, snowmobiles. You’d have to be nuts, I declared, to take one out there in March, as the snow drips determinedly from the rooftops and the most snow-packed lane becomes rutted with mud.
But no. A snowmobile is nothing. The next thing we saw nearly took my breath away: a full-size Chevy pick-up, trundling along the tree-marked route, clearly on its way to the island. I could hardly bear to look.
We decided there must be a time, an in-between time each autumn, each spring, when the ice is too unstable to safely serve as a road across what is, after all, a part of Lake Superior, some 90 feet at its deepest between those two bodies of land. The next day, while browsing at Apostle Books, the proprietor set me straight. Sure, she said, it’s almost time to shut the ice road, but not because the ice is too thin. She figured it was a foot thick, even then. The problem is the mess that forms on the beaches as the snow turns to slush, making it hard to get on and harder to get off that temporary road.
So I asked her about that in-between time, when those on the island and those on the mainland were stuck in place until the ice turned to water and the ferry again set sail. It made me feel uncomfortable, like some form of claustrophobia, or its cousin – shut-in-phobia, if you will. Surely the populations could only wave at each other from shore.
But there was no need for helicopters or magic brooms. There’s an ice skid, she explained. A sort of pontoon boat that can go over ice or water, it’s powered by a giant fan in the rear, and must be a hoot to ride. I’m only sorry it wasn’t launched while we were there. Riding it must be like gliding through the Everglades, only without the crocodiles and water grass. (Down there, they call them air boats, not ice skids.)
The whole situation made me think about those “not-quite-yet” times. When it’s officially spring, but the crocuses remain tightly fisted underground. When spring turns to summer, but it seems to happen while we’re not looking, the baby leaves on the maple unfurling and the flannel sheets becoming unbearably warm. Autumn’s leaves don’t turn color overnight, but change with aching slowness, finally browning and blowing away. The changes are subtle, until they are not. And winter? Those first hard frosts might herald a snowstorm, or the start of Indian Summer.
Back home, every season brings its challenges, but we don’t have to worry about being cut off. We have bridges, after all. The mere mention of snow sends us not inside, but out to the grocery store. No chance of shut-in-phobia here. Even at the height of a genuine blizzard, my kids and I once hiked two blocks to the local drugstore, more to prove we could do it, I think, than out of any real need for milk or Excedrin. The store was closed, so we hiked back home, exhilarated by the adventure and somewhat smug that we had made it. Even cozy in their houses, people need to know there’s a way out – a way to Over There.