The waves were already cresting over the dock as Deb and oldest granddaughter Molly made their way down the narrow walkway out to the Red Head. The 25-foot sport-craft, named for its bright red rag top, strained against its lines as they boarded and made ready to leave their northwest facing bay. This was nothing new. Wind wasn’t fun, but it was common. No matter the weather, there were people to be ferried and a schedule to be kept.
Both the boat and Deb were no stranger to the unpredictable wind and big water that could surprise even the most experienced captain on these northern shores of Lake of the Woods. But this run, this routine trip from her home on the far western point of Flag Island to the marina at Young’s Bay would take a turn that Deb would never forget.
Not quite to Brush Island, the Red Head was maintaining its slow slog forward when the wind suddenly and dramatically picked up speed. She didn’t know it at the time, but Deb was riding out a 60mph straight-line wind while on the water. A wind that downed thousands of trees, damaged buildings, docks and boats across the area and was similar to the event made infamous in William Kent Kreugar’s novel “Northwest Angle.”
For Deb, there was nothing to be done at the time but head straight into it, and hope against hope that the motor kept running. Years of
corporate work at Marvin Windows doesn’t quite prepare one for this sort of event, but mentally, Deb kept her head. It’s what her training and experience had taught her to do, and now, it literally meant their lives.
“Boats like to float,” she explained nonchalantly years after the fact, her retirement newly announced and the worst of the weather hopefully behind her. “Their job is to float, and they like to do it. So long as you don’t do anything stupid and the engine keeps running you can make it through virtually anything.”
During that unpredicted straight-line wind, heading towards her destination, Young’s Bay, would have put her broadside to the waves. So, with no other choice, she charged doggedly into the violent northern winds, heading towards American Point but going slowly, trying to stay somewhat in one spot. Waves were crashing over the bow, and as the boat entered shallower depths, the waters only got bigger. Deb recalls seeing the wavetops at eye-level out her boat window. “I was looking into water on the side of me,” she said, shaking her head remembering. “And that was a tall boat.” There was a reef to worry about too and the possibility of bottoming out.
All’s well that ends well, of course. They white-knuckled their way through the worst of it and once the high winds had abated, the boat could safely turn towards Young’s Bay and get back to her full schedule. “We picked up our people and were on our way again,” she said, shuddering as she finished the story. “That’s not one I want to do again.”
Island Passenger Service was two boats and a client list when Deb bought the business from Charles and Hazel McKeever in 2004. She had plenty of experience driving the family’s fishing boat and after earning her captain’s license through the standard but rigorous coursework and testing in Duluth, the rest of the knowledge would come on the job.
In the early days, even with Charlie’s vote of confidence and his “thousand percent support”, as a woman captain Deb was still met with skepticism and silent derision at times. “Most of the people who come to The Angle to go fishing are men, and often, they would see me, see the boat and keep looking up and down the dock wondering when their captain was going to arrive.”
She’d grown up with four brothers, raised two sons, and worked in the midst of men in IT at Marvin’s. Still, a female captain is rare. “Nothing was overtly said,” she remembered, “It was more of a feeling you got.” Logically, men walk into a situation, assess it and quietly determine who’s going to take charge should anything go wrong. She laughed, speaking aloud her interpretation of their internal dialogue, “’OK, if something happens, which one of us is going to drive this thing?’
“I ignored it for the most part. I had the backing of the people who knew the job and they had confidence in me, so it didn’t really matter what other people thought.”
Her first tools of the trade were a 25-foot hard top sport craft and a 23-foot Penn Yan. The iconic Red Head would come later, after she’d realized she was “never going to make friends with the Penn Yan.” Easily one of the most recognizable boats at the Northwest Angle in its heyday, the Red Head was the long-time flagship of Deb’s Island Passenger Service.
It’s the boat that, along with her steady hand and nerves of steel, got her through the 60mph winds. In it, over the summer seasons, she hauled many local residents, some who loved lake-living but were terrified of traveling in smaller watercraft. As a first responder for many years, Deb hauled injured and unconscious passengers headed for urgent care. She also ferried various celebrities but ever the professional, she wouldn’t name names. “They come to enjoy the lake and unwind, and golly, they’re just like other people,” she laughed. “They love to fish too.”
Mostly she transported many-a-guest from the six NW Angle island resorts and three Canadian ones. When commercial flights were no longer available up to The Angle, Deb added a passenger van service that picked up visitors at surrounding airports, brought them through customs and out to their destination.
Coordinating schedules was one of the many challenges she faced. “Every group liked to arrive and depart at about the same time,” she said, “And in the beginning, business was very busy. Back to back to back pickups and drop-offs.” Dealing with the unknowns, such as weather, customs’ delays or boat trouble also had to be factored in. It was no small feat and one that resorts will now manage on their own. This means keeping a licensed captain on staff and a passenger boat at the ready instead of having it out fishing. Several of the resort owners have already felt the lack. They miss seeing Deb on the dock and what Island Passenger Service provided for The Angle.
More than just the transport service, Deb also gave-back to the community in the form of preventative maintenance. She spent much of her summer on the water, often with one or more of her five grand-daughters in tow, pulling “deadheads” out of the lake all season long. Deadheads are trees, posts, stumps, etc., that are either afloat or have one end lodged in the mud or rocks of the bottom. They can cause immense damage to boats, props and lower units.
“Deadheads are kind of like an iceberg,” she explained. “You don’t know what you’re getting into. You only see a little bit of it above the water but it could be an entire tree, which it often is.” And pulling them can be tricky. She remembers pulling one by herself in the early days, and shortly after she got home, the phone rang. Ever-watchful and supportive, Charlie McKeever told her across the line, “we all need to pull deadheads, but don’t do it by yourself.” She took him at his word and has never had an incident. “If you’re leaning over and lose balance or the tree flips on you when you start pulling,” she said, “you can get hurt, you can fall out.”
On one flat-calm day, Deb and family pulled from the water 13 trees and 11 posts that had been wreaking havoc on local boat traffic. Their method was to tie up two at a time, haul them to their shallow bay, and then, using a quad, wrench them completely out of the water. After a season of drying the logs could be used for firewood, or some of the more intricate driftwood stumps even went to neighboring taxidermy friends.
Deb also gave tours to self-proclaimed “geography nerds” and history buffs, especially when geocaching became popular. She remembers one young couple who, on a beautiful sunny day after they’d visited Fort St. Charles, approached her with a handful of coins and dollar bills and asked her if she’d “just drive until this ran out.”
Her eyes sparkled wet when she recalled watching them holding hands and talking quietly in the back of the boat, the young woman with her bare feet propped up in the sun. She drove well beyond what the coins could afford, but it’s moments like those that Deb said she will miss the most about the business. As well as what being in the boat gave to her granddaughters, she added, the confidence that being on the water brings, being around boats and other adults, working hard and earning tips. “Oh my goodness, those kids would earn money hand-over-fist,” she laughed. “They really learned to help.”
As for the future of Island Passenger Service, “at this point no one is taking over,” Deb said. “I’ve had a few people look at it but no one serious.”
It’s not a simple job. Besides dealing with customers, their schedules, and the inevitable delays that so many factors beyond your control can create, “you have to know the lake and understand weather, you have to know your boat and how it’s loaded – balance is a big deal in the boat.
“At Mergen’s Point, for example, two currents come from different directions and then if the wind comes from another direction, it’s pushing you, and you’re trying to make that corner. You can feel the limitations of the boat and you have to work with that water. It’s not always friendly,” she stopped, looking out to the waters of her south bay as she spoke.
“I have so many feelings about the lake,” she continued quietly. “The lake can be very tough. You have to really respect its power. If you get some wind behind that water you can’t fight it; you have to work with it. You have to ‘feel’ the lake.”
Taking over Island Passenger Service also marked a huge life-change for Deb and her husband, Marvin. They moved up to The Angle full-time and haven’t looked back in those thirteen years.
“The community up here is very accepting,” Deb said. “If you’re willing to help out and be involved, they’re willing to have you, but moving up here isn’t for everyone. Things aren’t easy, especially out on an island.” Despite the hardships, according to Deb, island living has its own compensations and she wouldn’t trade it.
Putting Island Passenger Service to bed is bittersweet for her. “The job brought with it a lot of great memories that I’ll treasure,” she said. “I found out that I really, really, really like people. It’s not easy to get up here, so the people who come really want to be here. They appreciate the lake and they have a maturity of soul that isn’t everywhere. They’re great people.
“I also gained a lot of confidence in myself. I learned that I can physically do a lot more than I knew. And I can coordinate a lot of ‘stuff’,” she said, referring back to the many details of the job.
“And,” she paused. “I’ve also learned some painful things, like I’m not as patient as I would like to be, but the job certainly taught me to be moreso.”
Speaking of pain, one especially dewy morning, Deb, wearing her favorite Crocs, slipped while climbing into the Red Head. That simple 6:30AM fall resulted in a three-part ankle break and Deb being on the other end of the first-responder action. She was immobilized in the back of her own boat, ferried back to the mainland, transferred to a waiting van and then driven to the emergency room in Roseau. Her eyes were as dewy as that slippery boat step when she described how the community came together to make it all work, both the day of the fall and for the rest of the season as she recovered, went through physical therapy and then hobbled around docks on crutches. “Everybody was there for me. Everybody.”
To this day, she won’t wear a pair of Crocs.
As for what’s next, Deb still works full-time at an area resort and also plans to spend as much time as possible with her grandkids. She anticipates the lulls between each busy season and has no plans to leave the island anytime soon. Like she explained to the many passengers of the Red Head over the years as they asked her the same questions time and again, “similar to the analogy of watching paint dry, here on the island, we get to watch water freeze.”
And now, she wants to do more of that.
Published in the June 13th Warroad Pioneer