We’ve been living on an island in Northern Wisconsin for a little over a week now, and although there are a little over two hundred winter inhabitants on this 13 mile long rock, we have only interacted with a small handful of people. Almost every single person who has found out that we moved here for the winter has said something along the lines of “Why in the hell would you do that?”.
Although this keeps happening, it still catches me off guard every time. My initial thought is always the urge to ask them “Well, you live here in the winter don’t you? Shouldn’t you already know the answer to that question?” Instead, I generally just look at them wide eyed for a moment before muttering something about solitude and quickly change the subject.
I do understand where they are coming from, though. There is only one small convenient store open in the winter, one place to get gas, a library, a coffee shop, a church, and a handful of bars. Jobs are few and far between. The weather is harsh and the lake unforgiving, gale force winds and blizzards are commonplace, the every shifting ice powerful enough to rip docks completely away, chew them up, and spit up the pieces all across the shoreline for miles. It’s two miles across Lake Superior to get to the mainland and unless you have a nice, big boat (or have enough of a death wish to attempt kayaking in winter), your only option is to take the 20 minute ferry ride over. The ferry is great, don’t get me wrong, everyone loves the ferry, but the fuel costs are extraordinary to run a vessel that large, so the round trip price for one person to walk is $13. For one person to take a car over and back it costs $38. Imagine paying $13 extra every time you wanted to go to the grocery store or to the bank, and $38 extra if you wanted to go see a movie or go to the hardware store. Not to mention that ice or poor weather often means ferry cancelations and if you miss the last boat back at 5:30 pm, you are stuck on the mainland until the morning. So needless to say, once you are on the island, you are kind of stuck here for awhile, and it can be a lonely while if you are not a church goer or beer drinker, and especially if you are not a packer’s fan.
Later in the season, you can take the wind sled over when the ice is too thick for the ferry to break through, although there is often a period of time when there is absolutely no way to get over. There is the possibility for an ice road that you can drive your car across anytime once the lake freezes up, but depending on the year, the ice road season can be short or nonexistent. When the road is up and running, it is well marked and the ice depth is measured daily, but people do venture onto the ice early or late in the season when the road isn’t officially open, or they drive trucks or snowmobiles elsewhere, usually to go ice fishing. One peek at the winter issue of the Island Gazette and you will quickly realize that it is a rare year indeed when not a single person loses a vehicle, or even their life, to the lake when the ice gives way beneath them.
So yes, I get it, because, as one gentleman put it, “you have to be a special kind of crazy to live here in the winter”. The second question I usually get is “how long have you been coming here?”, which is some people’s way to telling me that I have no idea what I’m getting myself into, but to which I answer “my whole life”. That’s a fact, I have been coming here my whole life, and I’m going to keep coming back through hell or high water. In fact, Zak and I lived here for an entire summer in 2013, and while that’s a pleasant day at the beach compared to living here the rest of the year, we caught a taste of island living and we just had to come back for more. I think they assume that if I had been there in the winter before, I wouldn’t have decided to live here, but I have been in the winter, and it is exactly why I did want to come.
Me out on the ice several years ago.
You see, the seclusion of this place makes it very special during this time of the year. It’s a place where ice and snow dominates the landscape, where the daytime can be blindingly white, but the nights long and dark. In the summer, there are so many people and so much to do, but in the winter, there is only the ice and the endless blackness of the lake below, the cliffs and birch forests, the haunting quietness seems to give the spirits an opportunity to be heard. The voices of the Ojibwe who have called this place home for thousands of years, and the loggers, voyageurs, and fishermen that came more recently, the voices of those who endured here, who dared to eke out a life on this unforgivable lake, they grow loud on the howling wind. I come here to hear their stories, and to live in a small way, like they did.
Two beavers swimming in mostly frozen big bay lagoon.
There are other stories to be found here too. Since this is such a harsh place to live, it is an amazing place for a wildlife watcher. The adaptations of the animals and plants that survive here are so amazing to me, they come close to being mystical. The wildlife is powerful and strong. Bears, ravens, coyotes, white tailed deer, beavers, woodpeckers, and even bobcats and otters are abound in the winter, unfettered by human activity. The only downfall is that because it is so harsh out here, there are some animals that just don’t live on the island at all, even though they survive well on the mainland. These include snowshoe hare, turkeys, grouse, and porcupines. But alas, the daily reoccurring snow fall makes tracking easy, and it is easy to run into unsuspecting wildlife when the howling wind prevents them from hearing you. Woods travel is easy by ski or snowshoe and the snow covered trees are truly spectacular. The whole island, in fact, is breath takingly beautiful.
As they say up here, the cold keeps out the riffraff, and I could go for a little less riffraff in my life. It feels like I could go all winter without seeing anyone but Zak, our dog for the season, Prin (she is taking a hiatus from living with my parents), and the flora and fauna. Right now, I’m ready to just snuggle up next to the wood stove and write, listen to Zak pick his banjo, drink some tea and enjoy eating all the food we worked so hard to preserve this summer.
There’s just nothing like the Northwoods in winter.
So when people ask me why I came here, this is what I would tell them, but I just haven’t figured out how to do it in not so many words.
Disclaimer: This blog is just my opinion. While I try my hardest, everything may not be accurate or complete. Do not hold me accountable for anything you do to harm yourself or the world around you. I do make a small amout of money from this blog. If you click on any of the links in this blog, I may make a small amount of money from it, at no extra cost to you. I am not sponsored by any of these companies I just honestly love their products and want to give you the resources to find them. I am not a medical practictioner; consult a health care professional before using any herbal remedies. I am not claiming to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any ailment.