In Part 1 of this blog post, published here last week, I began recounting the events of February 15. While visiting the remote north end of Madeline Island during this cold and snowy winter, a blizzard blew in from the northeast. By evening, the conditions were entirely whiteout and bitterly cold. But to the astonishment of my wife and me, our doorbell rang at approximately 6:30. A young man- hatless, red-faced and breathless- tried to tell us of his plight.
“I’ve got to get my girlfriend up from our snowmobile at the base of your cliff; she’s still down there. We were out on the lake and the storm rolled in and when I headed for shore my GPS died. So I tried to keep a straight course for the mainland but must have been turned around and we drove until I saw a large black mass ahead. I slowed down, thinking it was land, but as I got closer I saw that it was open water! We turned around and headed back the way we came, and then my headlamp went out. I couldn’t see a thing in the whiteout, so I tried to follow my own tracks. I had to take off my helmet to have even a chance of seeing anything. We had about given up when I thought I saw a dot of light in this direction. I headed for it and as we got closer, the light became brighter and more continuous. I followed it right to the base of your property. But my girlfriend is still down on the snowmobile; I couldn’t get her up the cliff. I climbed up myself and got to your door. I don’t even know where I am. We need some help.”
The story was a lot to take in, standing there in the doorway with a blizzard on the other side of it. I was amazed that anyone out on the ice could have possibly seen the yard light I had turned on to watch the snowfall. The cliff that he had scaled is a good 70 feet of vertical, ice-coated sandstone. The woods that he had waded through confronted him with 100 yards of waist-deep snow. The young man needed to catch his breath and his calm before anything further.
“We never even checked the weather while we were out there,” he lamented. “I couldn’t believe how bad it was when looked out at 4:30. And then we couldn’t see anything at all. Man, when we saw that open water we were scared out of our minds. We just tore away from there.” As he rambled on, I thought about dialing 911 on the Island, or calling my contractor friend Tibbs, and wildly thinking about who else might be able to render some serious assistance if it became needed. But not tonight. For better or worse, we were the rescuers.
We agreed that the first order of business was to somehow help his girlfriend up the cliff and into the warm house. I provided stout rope and a large-beam flashlight, and he assured me that he would be able to help her up with only these tools. While he headed back to the edge of the cliff, I dressed for the storm and prepared the car for a journey to La Pointe, despite the conditions of the night. Katie shut down the kitchen and prepared herself and Murphy for our unplanned outing. On this night of all nights to remain indoors, we prepared to go out. Finally, some twenty minutes later, the two wayward adventurers came in from the cold at last.
The young woman stumbled into the room with her boyfriend right behind. Her hair was soaking wet, her face a burned crimson from the cold. Her snowmobile suit had become caked with snow and ice, which began to melt in the warmth of the entry room. Katie offered a hot drink. She accepted even as she crumpled to the floor with exhaustion. I could tell that the young man felt some relief, having his girlfriend finally indoors, but his questions continued to pour out faster than I could answer them.
“How far are we from La Pointe? How far is that from the mainland? Do you have any gas that I could buy, to try to make it to La Pointe? What time is it? Is there anyone in town at all?” As he fired the questions, it dawned on me that these two pilgrims were the ones who had occupied the solitary space on the ice, away from the cluster of fishers we had seen earlier in the day.
I explained to this thawing apparition that he had come ashore at the far end of Madeline Island, 14 miles from the town of La Pointe, or at least as the crow flies. But with no light for the sled, he would have to follow all of the bays and inlets along the shoreline to navigate to town. “I don’t have enough gasoline for that,” he said. Additionally, I had no gasoline at all.
As we answered his questions, his frenzied energies began to ease a bit and he elaborated on the story of how they came to be in our house. “After we lost the GPS, I figured that we could stop and put up our fishing hut again if we had to, because I had two bottles of propane that probably would have kept us OK for heat through the night. But we didn’t really want to stay out there all night. I really thought we were on a straight line back to the mainland when we left. Then I started to notice that there were more frequent ice upheavals and we hadn’t really seen many of them before. It turns out that they were more of them toward the edge of that open water.” He stopped talking for a moment and stole a quick glance at his girlfriend sitting on the floor. “I couldn’t believe that water. If we had gone in, nobody would have ever found us; our tracks would have been totally covered by morning.”
The hot cocoa was working its magic on the young woman by now and soon she was on her feet again. The two made it clear that their objective was to not only get back to their truck on the mainland this night, but also to travel back to their homes, nearly two hours away from where the truck had been parked. Their plan was to return to the Island on Sunday, drive out to our location with fresh gas and the advantage of daylight, and then rendezvous in La Pointe for the eventual trip home.
The young man asked, sheepishly, whether we might be willing to drive them all the way to the mainland across the ice road which linked the two lands. But I had to invoke my long-held pledge that I would never drive across the ice at night, for any reason. Too many horror stories about vehicles taking the plunge into the frigid waters of Superior had long ago disavowed me of any appetite for that kind of adventure. I apologized for my reticence and vowed that we’d get them to La Pointe and whatever other forms of help they might need, though I had absolutely no idea who or what we might find in town on this storming night….
Once again, time and space tell me to stop for now. I’ll conclude this tale and what it has to teach next week in the final part. I hope you’ll come back for the ending….