Mike Radtke is the operations manager for the Madeline Island Ferry Line in Bayfield, Wisconsin. He started there as a captain and over the past 32 years, he has made the 20-minute, 2.5 mile journey between the mainland and the island thousands of times.
We talked about his observations of how Lake Superior has changed through the years, his family’s long-time habit of hosting international exchange students and the beauty and richness of life in a small town.
“Madeline Island is the largest of the Apostle Islands. If you overlaid Manhattan Island, they’re very similar in size. You could almost come to Madeline island and imagine what it was like before the Dutch went to Manhattan. Interestingly, on the south end of the island, there’s a channel called the South Channel and just a few miles from Madeline Island is Long Island. So we have a Long Island as well.
We have beautiful beach areas. We have sandstone cliffs at the state park and the town park. It has a beautiful lagoon area and a very rich history. The original people there were the Anishinaabe and their history and cultural influence on the island is there and being displayed, for instance, at the Madeline Island Museum. I call it a human-sized museum where you can go into it and in a couple of hours get a great deal of information about the island and really get some depth to your experience there.
And Madeline has a road system. It has year-round residents on it. Of course it has many summer residents as well. It has about between 270 and maybe 300. In fact, this winter, I think there were more residents than ever because of the COVID escape. People decided to take their summer residences and make them kind of their year-round residences.
The island does have the benefit of having an amazingly new fiber optic system. So they have great internet access in a remote place. Better than in Bayfield and as a result, people could come here and kind of escape COVID, I guess, from their more urban areas and stay on the island.
I’ve been with the Madeline Ferry Line for 32 years. I actually thought I would be there for about three years. I had a Coast Guard license and started out as a captain. I didn’t know if it’d be a long-term thing, but I grew to appreciate the business and the company and the support I got working there. And I worked as a captain for a number of years, and then eventually a management position opened up and I’d had previous business management experience. And so I applied for that position, the Marine Operations Manager position, and I got it. And I’ve actually lost track of how many years that’s been, but my responsibilities are overseeing all of our crew and captains and deck hands, as well as our vessels and their maintenance and condition and compliance with Coast Guard regulations.
And so it became just a great place for me to be. I felt very fortunate that I could live in this little town and be gainfully employed and very challenged in my work. I was also fortunate that my wife was a teacher and she was able to find employment in the Washburn school district, 10 miles away. And so we both lucked into a situation that worked out great. We were able to eventually buy a home here in Bayfield and raise our kids in this town.
So it’s been a great, wonderful experience for us and the ferry line is a business that fit for me in a lot of ways. The culture of the company, its emphasis on customers service, its strong emphasis on environmental protection and priorities of the owners of the company. And so that felt right, staying with them as long as I did. It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been 32 years.
We’re running somewhere in the range of 20 to 25 round trips in a day. I remember we had a deck hand work for us and he had been with us for many years. Before he retired, we spent a week calculating how many steps he took, because when we load cars, we walk backwards and we wave the cars onto the boat and we walk the length of the deck. So we totaled up the length of the deck and then we kind of extrapolated how many times in a day or how many feet in a day and then how many feet in a week. And we determined that he had walked to southern Kentucky from here, backwards. I’d have to do something like that in order to determine how many trips I’ve made.
I can’t say it’s different each time, but when people ask me the question about does it get boring going back and forth each time, I say, “First of all, we’re in a gorgeous area. And we have the best corner office you can imagine. I mean, we’ve got windows all around in the pilot house. So we get to see this spectacular scenery day in and day out. The weather is constantly changing. Sometimes you’d rather not be out in it, whether it’s really rough or extremely cold or whatever it is. But the customers change and the loading is different. The crew members you work with are different, from shift to shift. That type of thing. So there’s enough variety.
I was interviewed one time by Wisconsin Public Radio about this. And I said, “Every job has its routines.” I said, “Imagine if you’re an orthopedic surgeon, there are days you go in and you say, ‘I just can’t do another knee today.’” Right?
And it was kind of funny because an orthopedic surgeon I know, who had done a repair of my elbow when I broke it, he heard that interview and he called me the next day and said, “Hey, Mike, this is so-and-so,” and he said, “That crack you made on Wisconsin Public Radio about orthopedic surgeons…” And I said, “Oh, you heard that?” And he said, “Yeah…you’re absolutely right.”
We hope and we believe that surgeons give each knee individual attention. Of course. But there’s a routine to their job. So, I think if this has to be a routine, it’s not a bad place to have some routineness to it, you know?
The rough days are the ones that you remember. You know, the ones that were really sort of spectacularly wild, weather-wise. And I do remember a trip—I don’t want to over dramatize it—I just remember that at the time, we had decided not to run that day because it was a very heavy Northeast wind. And the power company called and said the power was out on the island and would we make a run? And I said, “Well, I’m not really sure.” And they said, “Well, we need to know that we can get back from the island.” And I said, “Well, we can maybe get you over there, but as far as a guarantee getting you back, we’re not gonna guarantee that.” And they said, “Well, then we’re not going over.”
But the island needed power. And so, another captain and I—he was more senior than me—I said, “Would you make the trip with me?” Actually, I wanted him to drive. And he said he would. And so we called the power company and said, “We’ll take you over.” We never said any more about whether they’d get back and figured, once they’re over there, what choice do they have?
So they came down, we got everything ready. We secured their vehicles on the boat. My daughter was quite young at the time. And she came down with my wife to see us off. And she got rather emotional. She thought that it was a dangerous trip. We went and it was a pretty dramatic trip. I don’t think it was unsafe, but it was quite rough. And we were rolling a little bit and actually a good friend of mine, Jeff Rennicke, took a few photos of the boat that kind of dramatized what it was like as we had to make our turn towards the island. That was kind of a memorable one.
We ended up staying on the island for the night because as it turned out, there was a lot of power lines that were down. And so the power company wasn’t going to come back that night anyway. So it all worked out.”
“We run in ice. There’s no normal anymore. Everything seems to be constantly changing. Traditionally it would take somewhere between a week to two weeks for it to freeze up to the point where we felt that the crossing was just getting too hard for us to do. And so we would notify the operators of the wind sled, which is this the best way to describe it. Like an airboat, like you’d see in the Everglades, although it’s designed for winter operation and it’s fully enclosed. [It’s just for passengers. No vehicles.] We notify them that we’re thinking we are going to shut down. We notify the islanders that a shut down is imminent. And they start making arrangements and start getting supplies over and propane and fuel oil and all the things that they’re going to need to get through the winter months, or at least the shutdown.
And then we start to get their vehicles over because they need to have vehicles on the mainland side. Typically they have a couple of vehicles and so they’ll leave one on the mainland, in our parking lot. And then we shut down and then the wind sled starts to operate and they operate until there’s approximately 12 or 14 inches of ice, enough that you can drive a vehicle on and they can start to plow the road. And then the same people that run the wind sled also maintain the road under a contract with the town of La Point and the Bayfield school district, because they also transport the school kids back and forth to Bayfield. They plow the road and start to get it ready.
And in the process of plowing that area of the channel, it freezes down even more because with the snow off of the ice, it gets thicker. So they plow it and then eventually they test it and check it and then they deem it safe for car travel and they open it up to car travel and then the wind sled stops and people drive back and forth. That’s in a normal kind of transition, but that’s changing.
Before I was in the position that I’m in as a manager, I was a captain. I started in April of 1989. The December prior to that, 1988, was a very cold start to winter and they almost shut down before Christmas. You know, it sounds like here’s this old guy talking about how cold winters used to be when you were a kid…
But in fact, winters were colder. November would come in and move into December, the temperatures would decline and they would be just constantly in this gradual decrease on average. And you could almost set your calendar that the freeze up would happen sometime around the first or second week of January. And that there would be a shutdown and that it wouldn’t start to break up until late March or early April. And that was just kind of what you said to people. This is when it generally happens. And this is when breakup is and people just came to expect it and to sort of plan for it.
Islanders, it’s a release for them. You know, the ferry, I think we provide a great service and so on. But, you know, they have to pay for the ferry. They have to depend on our schedule and when that ice road comes in and they can start driving, there’s a freedom that they experience for a few months that is something that they really appreciate. So that was normal.
And then in—I’m trying to remember the year—1998, I believe, was the year of our first year-round season. We didn’t shut down at all. We operated continuously that year. And that was a shock. And since then, we’ve had six year-round seasons. In a really very short time period. Prior to that, there’d never been a year-round season in the history of our company.
So the first one was shocking. The second one was an eye-opener, and then the rest were…things have changed. You know, things are clearly not what they used to be. And even in those years when we’ve been shut, we’ve had typically shorter freeze ups than in the past. So we’ve seen the evidence of—at least in our area—of climate change. And it’s changed the rhythm of living on Madeline island and of that dependability of that road. I think for some people, driving on ice sounds like a precarious thing. You can’t imagine saying you look forward to it, but if you live over there and you’ve chosen to live there, you’ve made peace with the idea of driving on ice and going across the ice. And they really do miss that dependability of the road and of what it provided for them.
We still get years with freeze up. They seem much more special and much more fleeting. You just don’t know when the next one will be. In the winter of 2020 and 2021, the ice road did come in. And then there was a large heave of the ice and they were not able to drive all the way to Bayfield. They could get to within about a hundred yards of the approach in Bayfield. And then they had to park their cars on the other side of this crack and then walk across the crack and the people that run the wind sled built a bridge that they could walk across. And then they walked the hundred yards up to their car and got in their car, went shopping, came back, carried their groceries and stuff across that ice to the bridge, walked the bridge and they got in their car and drove to the island.
It was a lot of work. Again, I think the islanders appreciated that there was even that. Okay. It wasn’t great. It wasn’t perfect, but at least they had that. That also ended very quickly. I mean, it didn’t last long.”
“This lake is about the connections we have. We have a connection to Canada. Canadians are our neighbor via this big, vast piece of water. People in Thunder Bay and people in Sioux Saint Marie, I’m connected to them by that water and how it’s maintained. And with people in Duluth and with people in Michigan and Marquette and other places. So that’s powerful.
I love the vastness of it. Just the fact that you can be in places along the shoreline where you can’t see the other side is something that is amazing. You’re in the Midwest and you can look out there and realize that there’s something on the other side, but you can’t see it.
I love how clean the lake is. I was just actually laughing with somebody about depth sounders, and what’s the point of a depth sounder around here, when you just look over the side and you can see the bottom. I have one in my boat and I rarely hook it up because I can always just look over the side and say, “Oh, there’s the bottom. It’s clear. There are the rocks.” And if you can’t see the rocks down there, your water’s plenty deep to navigate.
I’ve traveled across the lake from east to west a number of times, and it takes you a couple of days, and that in and of itself is pretty amazing. You know, when you’re on a boat for a couple of days just running, and you think this is 360 miles across. I think that vastness of it is the thing that is amazing.
We live in this wonderful community that my kids grew up in. I remember talking to my wife about this, that our kids don’t live live with us year round. My son comes back in the summer. My daughter lives in Aspen, Colorado. But the fact of the matter is they do want to come back, you know? They grew up in this beautiful place and they will see other beautiful places, but they want to come back and visit. They want to see this place. And we’re really fortunate that this is not your typical little town in the sense that it just has so much to offer.”
The Edmond Fitzgerald
“The year the Edmond Fitzgerald went down, I was in high school in Ashland. My family had moved to Ashland from central Wisconsin when I was in high school. I remember that storm and being pretty amazed by the power and what was going on on the lakefront in Ashland. And then when we saw what had happened up here in Bayfield, I mean, it really just did major damage to the harbor here and where our ferry dock is right now, that was at one time, a commercial fishing dock, the herring processing was done there, and commercial fishermen had their docks and their net houses there. And that was all destroyed in that storm. And then we started to hear the news of the Fitzgerald sinking and the shock that a modern ship, 700 feet long, that this lake would take it down.
If you’d studied the history of the shipwrecks in the early years, there were quite a few of them, but there was a lot more shipping going on at the time. These were wooden vessels or smaller and there were reasons that they went down. They ran aground or whatever, but here was a vessel that was considered very substantial. That was an eye opener for me.
I had grown up up here and we sailed in the lake. My dad had bought a small sailboat and I learned a sail with him and appreciated the power of the lake, but never thought it would take a vessel of that size and strength down. And that was very impressive. It sinks in. Just excuse the pun.”
“Madeline island has a year-round population, but the other islands had year-round populations as well. Sand Island had a year round population at one time. And there were people who chose to live on the islands by themselves. Hermit Island was named after a person who just chose to live on that island as a hermit. And, and there was a guy named Martin Kane who lived on Oak Island and he lived there year-round. He would come in for supplies and get a shave. But he would go back to Oak island and live out there. So those are just fascinating stories.
And then of course the lighthouse keepers and those types of things are just so rich and you just realize people were tough. And yet when you read their writings, they love the lake too. They love the power of it. They reveled in the beauty. We sometimes think when we recreate here that we’re seeing it for the first time or that we are experiencing it differently, but these people recreated and enjoyed the area and appreciated the lake as well. They didn’t just see it a job or as toil. Certainly it was hard and I’m sure there were times when they would’ve preferred to be somewhere else, but the love of the area comes through in their writings and their journals.”
“It’s kind of funny because of course we’re having warmer on average weather. And even right now, we are having a very warm spring. We had some incredibly cold record days just a week or so ago, but overall it’s definitely warmer. And I think the climate change, the warming of the lake is my biggest concern and how it’s going to change the lake in ways that we can’t imagine. There have already been some signs of what can happen. There was an algae bloom in parts of the lake back in 2016, after there was a major, major rain event that dropped a huge amount of rain and actually flooded out the marina at Saxon Harbor, and a number of people died in adjoining communities as a result of the flooding caused an awful lot of runoff into the lake.
The nutrients from that flood caused this algae bloom, which was not something we would see on Lake Superior. It’s something you see in inland lakes and especially in the southern parts of the state. And that was one of those eye-opening things where [we saw] what’s happening to our lake. What’s going on? And so the warming of the lake increases the likelihood of those types of things happening. And in fact, the beaches were closed from Ashland to here. You never see signs saying “beach closed” because of E coli counts, that type of thing. We take for granted how beautiful the lake is and how clean it is, but it can change and it can change rapidly. And I think the climate change side of it is the biggest concern that I have.
The forests of Northern Minnesota and Northern Wisconsin were considered so vast that we could never deplete them. And in a very short time, we did. We did it. And to say that somehow we can’t mess up Lake Superior because it’s so big, well, that’s ridiculous.
I mean, we’re seeing changes in the oceans. So of course, why can’t this lake change? There are things that are happening. Microplastics are being found in the lake, which is just very disturbing. These are things you can’t see with the naked eye, but they’re there. And they’re products of industrial pollution and all of us are contributing to that in the things that we use and how we use them and flush ’em down our toilets and wash ’em down our drains. There’s a lot of research being done at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, at the large lakes observatory. And they’re finding these microplastics and raising the flag about it. What can we do about it?”
“Back in 2000, we had been approached by an organization called AFS, which means American Field Service, but it’s an organization that’s does international youth exchange. They’ve been doing it since shortly after World War II. It was an organization that started with ambulance drivers who had witnessed two world wars in very short succession and came to the realization that they’d seen way too much carnage and that something had to be done. And so they developed a program to bring students from Germany, specifically…and Japan, and other European countries to the United States. And in turn, send students to those countries, believing that if they could build bridges with students, living with families, that there’d be less inclination to start shooting at each other.
The organization has grown over many years and prior to the pandemic was bringing in a couple thousand students a year into the U.S. and sending hundreds of American students abroad. And we were approached by a local volunteer and asked if we would be willing to take a French girl who was going to be arriving in a couple of weeks and they didn’t have a family yet for her.
We talked about it and said, “Sure.” I’d had some experience in my family. We had had short weekend exchanges. My father was involved with Rotary and we’d had college-aged students come and stay with us during the holidays from other countries, that type of thing. So I was always intrigued by it. And anyway, our French student came to live with us, and we fell in love with her. And I know that she did with us as well. And it was just a life-changing experience having that cultural experience. She was in high school. My daughter was a freshman in high school, and my son was in middle school.
It was kind of a perfect time and she became a big sister to my daughter and a buddy of my son. She was just a delightful young woman and we have maintained that contact since and been to France and visited her. She’s now a mother of two. We haven’t gone to war with France. So it worked.
And then it was students from Japan. And then from Italy and Spain and Thailand. Eventually some of the students were with us for an entire school year. Some were just temporarily with us, as new families were being found for these students. We had a student from China who was with us for two weeks at the beginning and two weeks at the end of her stay. And we stay in close touch with her and I’ve been to China and visited her.
And you live in a little town, a small little town in Northern Wisconsin. And you know, it brings the world to this little community. You share your exchange student of course, with the community. So the community benefits from that and it makes this little town seem a little less small. And they go back and they are appreciative of this place. This little town in Northern Wisconsin on this incredible lake. They almost all have something that is a representation of Lake Superior, whether it’s a pendant that they wear or a photograph or something of this lake. They can tell their friends and family, “This is where I lived, on this lake here.”
So it’s fun when they start to discover that, and start to let their more urban life kind of fade away and fall into the rhythm of this little town.
And then my wife and I got more involved in the support side of it, because we just wanted to make the experience as good an experience as possible. So we helped with supporting students and when students were struggling with cultural adjustment or families were, we would try to help in that manner. So I often tell people the reason that they should host a student is because it’s a great way to expand your family without having to send them to college or change diapers . Our children have grown from that experience. And now we have family all over the world.
I think the thing you learn is that we’re all essentially the same at the basic level. But you also appreciate those cultural differences. We just loved learning about those differences and learning about food and learning about why people do things differently in one country versus the other.
These kids come in and they often have the same clothing as American kids. You know, you don’t have Japanese girls coming in kimonos, for instance. They’re wearing blue jeans and tennis shoes and they look the same in that respect, but they have different experiences. They interact differently. Their cultures deal with conflict differently. And that nuance part of it is really sometimes the most fascinating. Why did this student react this way to something? Or why are they struggling or why are we struggling with something that happened? And some of it is just kids growing up and they’re in your home, they’re teenagers. And then the other part of it is the cultural side and why they see the world the way they do. And that’s really an eye-opener, especially then when you go travel and you’re in their countries and you have the chance to see how they live and their meet their families.”
“You know, I think sometimes people think of peace as meaning no conflict. And I don’t see it that way. I think that it’s rather how we navigate the world in such a way that we avoid harm and we accept that there will be challenges and that we will experience the world differently than other people. That we will have conflict, but that we’re striving to do no harm. The Hippocratic oath, in a sense. You know, how are we gonna avoid harming the planet? A peaceful act is to not harm the planet and the creatures that live here, as much as that’s possible. And the same with your fellow human beings is that you limit your harm.
None of us are perfect and we will harm in some ways. And you hope that maybe there can be some restitution in some way for the harm that you do. So I see it as limiting the harm. Or if you do harm, how do you correct for that?
Looking at the world is really hard for me sometimes when I see the conflict. I see how the U.S. is dealing with China right now. And of course we have relations with people in China and you worry because you think there is going to be a point where we’re in serious conflict with China, and how is that gonna feel when you have these close relationships with people in a place like that, or in the other countries that you’ve built these relationships with?
So that’s one of the great experiences of exchange is just that ability to put yourself in that country. I don’t think you should have to do that, but when you’ve had these multiple relationships around the world, you do see these places differently. And so you worry about conflict. You realize how little control most of those people have to alter what’s happening. And so they can become victims of the decisions of people with too much power, too much money, too much authority. And so we have just developed this richness and ability to see these places on a human level, on a very human level, rather than just as a geographic location or as a geopolitical chessboard piece.
I’ve seen it with many families who’ve hosted and just how their eyes have been opened to the world and how they see these issues. It’s one student at a time, one family at a time, but it has a multiplier effect. These students come into your communities and they become not just your student, they’re part of your family.”
“I’m really excited about this community right now. There are younger people coming into it. There has been a fairly long period where that wasn’t happening. Our young people were going to school here and moving out and leaving the area for opportunities. And now some of them have gone out and they’ve seen the world, they’ve seen other places, and they’re starting to come back.
I don’t think this is the end of the road. Bayfield is a small town, but it needs young people and it needs energy. And there’s nothing greater than people who’ve lived here and had a history here already, and they come back and decide, “Yeah, this is a good place to live and make a contribution.”
There’s a young woman who was a ticket seller for us and a deck hand. She grew up in Washburn. She left, she got her degree. She was working as a teacher in another community, now she’s back in the area teaching and I’m just so happy to see her back. I saw her just the other day and she was just so happy to be back here. Her family is here and she has that connection.
A lot of small towns are just withering and dying away in rural areas, but it doesn’t feel like that’s going to be the case for us. I’m seeing the ability for people to work remotely is giving us a chance. There was a lot of talk about that about 10 years ago, but it never really came to fruition. And if there’s one thing the pandemic has done, it’s shown that people can live in other places and be productive and find meaningful work and maybe live here and contribute. So I’m just seeing some of that happening and it’s really gratifying.”
“Take a chance. Whether it’s having an exchange student in your life, or take a chance on a new community, a little, rural town in Northern Wisconsin, that you can set your roots in, and see if you can make a contribution…
Take a chance on getting active, sticking your neck out a little on things that you really care about. We need people to stay active and to be vocal about the things they care about. And again, that’s one of the things I love about this place is that there are a lot of people that are passionate about it, and want to protect it. There’s one little concern I sometimes have here is that we…it is such a cool place that it’s easy for us to live in a little bubble here…not realize we are part of this bigger world. And as much as we wanna protect this, this place is threatened by what’s going on out there. So it’s not just protecting our little part of it. We have to protect the whole. And so, yeah. Get active, be involved, take a stand.”