MILLER BOAT LINE Enlarge
CATAWBA ISLAND -- The band didn't play, nobody broke a bottle of Heineman's Crystal Cave Champagne on the bow, and the formal blessing of the fleet was still three months away, but the Miller Boat Line was back ferrying food, freight, and folks to and from South Bass Island last week.
If there was such a thing as "normal," Feb. 1 would find the three-mile-wide ferry passage between Catawba Island and the Lime Kiln Dock on South Bass either locked in ice or littered with frozen, jagged chunks scattered about by the wind.
But so far, this winter goes into the books as an "aberration," according to Billy Market, who captains the 96-foot long, 1,300 horsepower workhorse ferry "William Market," named for his late father.
"We don't know if this is the start of the start of the new season, or the end of the end of the past season," Market said on Friday as bright sunshine and temperatures in the 40s caressed the Lake Erie islands. "It's great to be running this early and providing the service, but I still consider this to be extreme and abnormal circumstances."
Market, whose native islander parents purchased the boat line in 1978,said a rough calendar guideline has the ferry service shutting down for the winter before Christmas and reopening around St. Patrick's Day in mid-March. He is running four trips to and from Catawba each day, but the weather always holds the trump card.
"I doubt if we make it all the way through the month of February without having to stop due to ice or real wintry weather," Market said. "If we do manage to run the ferry for the whole month, it would be a one-in-a-hundred year kind of thing."
The 400-500 full-time residents on South Bass Island and in the village of Put-in-Bay are the primary beneficiaries of the early ferry runs, and some of the initial trips saw trucks loaded with concrete blocks, lumber and other construction materials headed to the island.
The resumption of ferry service also allows the businesses on the island to make a more direct connection with their suppliers. When the ferry is not in operation, goods must be shipped across the open lake by air, which adds significant freight costs to everything.
"It definitely helps us out a lot with getting the supplies we need, and getting them faster and fresher," said Jason Buttrey, who tends the bar at Tipper's Restaurant in downtown Put-in-Bay, the only island eatery open daily year-round.
"We look forward to the start of the ferry running since we can get our produce and meats here quicker, but it also means it's a lot easier for people to come visit the island. The ferry makes the connection with the mainland so convenient."
Tammy Knaser, who has lived on the island for 33 years and whose family owns several businesses in Put-in-Bay, including the Island General Store, said besides providing a less expensive means of transporting freight from the mainland, the resumption of the ferry service should also give the island economy a needed boost.
"Due to the way this winter has gone, we're not getting the ice fishermen like we do in most years, so the bed-and-breakfast places and the other businesses are suffering," she said. "With the ferry in operation, we're starting to see cottage owners coming out to check on things, and hopefully other folks will take advantage of the opportunity to visit the island earlier than usual."
Market said he remains conflicted over the rogue pattern this winter has followed. While glad to provide his fellow islanders with the opportunity to cross the open water and experience what he refers to as the "three M's" on the other side -- "Movies, malls, and McDonald's" -- he also has a lot of empathy for those connected with the ice fishing business, whose season could be a total loss.
"Every year, I'd love to see four or five or six weeks of hard winter, but this year there just hasn't been that clear line in between the seasons," he said.
"If I could be selfish and make my own choice, I'd rather be sitting on12 inches of ice off Rattlesnake Island right now, jigging for walleyes. But if you live here you learn soon enough that the weather and the lake -- they decide these kinds of things. We just go along with what they give us."
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6068