By Joanna M. Foster
on January 28, 2014
The frozen opalescent lake and thin, gray sky fade together into white light where the horizon should be. Tall, skeletal grasses shiver on the beach in a wind that makes any sliver of exposed skin burn. The Arni J. Richter, an icebreaking ferry, is about to pull away from Northport Pier for its second and final trip of the day to Washington Island. It’s loaded with food and fuel for the more than 700 hardy residents who call the remote island, just north of Door County peninsula in Wisconsin, home.
People have lived on Washington Island for over 160 years. They’re proud of their tight-knit community and their Icelandic heritage. But life on the island is threatened. For the past 15 years, islanders have watched Lake Michigan slowly disappear. Last January, the lake hit a record low, 29 inches below the long-term average as measured since 1918. The Richter Ferry was just inches away from grounding in some spots along its increasingly treacherous six-mile route to the island.
The Great Lakes, which contain one-fifth of the world’s above-ground fresh water supply, are sometimes referred to as America’s “northern coast.” As communities along the rest of the nation’s shorelines brace for rising waters brought by climate change, however, and spend billions on replacing sand swept out to sea in storms, the communities of the Great Lakes find themselves with more and more sand and less and less water.
“The island depends on the ferry for everything,” said Hoyt Purinton, President and Captain of the Washington Island Ferry Line and great grandson of the ferry’s first captain. “If the ferry can’t get to the island, the island won’t survive. Even if you could find another way to get food and fuel over there, if there’s no easy way for tourists to make the trip, the fragile island economy dies and the community and culture goes with it.”
As the lake retreats, some people blame the Army Corps of Engineers for dredging projects that widen channels leading out of Lake Michigan. Others wonder if the watershed can no longer support the 40 million people in the U.S. and Canada who now rely on the lakes for their drinking water.