2017-12-09 / News

Island Community Enjoys Lively Activities in the Quiet of Winter

By Cathryn Lien

The throngs of tourists are gone until next summer, more cold and snow are ahead. It’s the quiet season here on Mackinac Island, but that stillness along the streets and on the bluffs is deceptive, as any year-around Islander will tell you.

This is when Mackinac Island takes on a new life of school-centered activities, special holiday celebrations, and longtime friends and neighbors remembering why they treasure the close-knit community where they have chosen to live.

Colder winds come and a blanket of snow likely will cover the landscape by January. Horsedrawn carriages jingle with sleigh bells. There’s hope this year that Lake Huron will freeze over enough to form a roadway known as the “ice bridge,” where snowmobile traffic can run continuously to and from St. Ignace. If you can hear the plane flying, it’s probably a beautiful day. Winter weather may pose a problem downstate, but on Mackinac Island, it’s welcome.

“People always ask us how much snowfall we see per year,” said Dennis Bradley, a city council member and former airport manager. “We say there’s never enough snow!”

Bicycles soon will be exchanged for snowmobiles as the main form of transportation. Mackinac Island State park plows will clear the M-185 shoreline state road, Main Street, and Market Street for emergency vehicles, but will leave enough snow for traction and the snowmobiles. At least a foot of snow on the ground and average temperatures around 20 degrees can be expected, based on past experience.

The year-around population here is a little less than 500, divided between Harrisonville in interior and the east shoreline area comprising the main business district and municipal government buildings. The winter months are a time for relaxation because most residents worked long hours last summer.

“Some people you won’t see all summer,” said Barb Fisher, the secretary at the school. “It’s nice to reconnect during the winter when people have more free time.”

Between the City’s Recreation Department events, church programs, and school events, the community now will have activities scheduled every day of the week, Mrs. Fisher says. Mackinac Island Public School’s hillside playground will be packed with snowmobiles for Friday night basketball games.

The school’s woodshop has been used for community woodworking and stained glass classes. In the winter of 2017-2017, Captured Spirits on Mackinac Island, a project that honors its Native American heritage, provided an Ojibwa Language Class at the school. High-speed internet allows for movies, interactive television education, remote health care, and access to social media. The Mackinac Public Library has a wide selection of reading material and access to library collections through the state and coordinates crocheting, knitting, and book clubs.

Winter residents generally lead more wholesome lifestyles than the average American in regards to social interaction and outdoor activities. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the average citizen spends 87% of their time indoors and 6% in cars, leaving only 7% for outdoors activity. Lack of automobile transportation has the advantage of forcing Island residents to get more outdoor exercise, and the groomed crosscountry ski trails are great motivator to get active.

Mackinac State Historic Parks and the City of Mackinac Island have worked together to create a community ice rink near East Bluff and Anne’s Tablet for residents to enjoy.

Winter tourism sounds attractive in theory, but unpredictable weather makes it impractical. Skiers and snowshoe enthusiasts are attracted to Mackinac Island during the off-season, and many will stay at bed and breakfast inns like Pontiac Lodge or Bogan Lane Inn.

The Christmas Bazaar, last weekend, again was a warm coldseason gathering for residents and a smaller number of visitors who arrived via winter’s reduced ferry service. As usual, the holiday-oriented festival included the lighting of the city Christmas tree and three days of bargain tables, baked goods, and live and silent auctions raising money for the Island’s four churches. Some of the downtown gift shops reopened temporarily to accommodate visitors.

Winter Festival, coming up the first weekend in February, is geared toward the community and outdoor recreation. Recreation Department Director Mary Patay and volunteers will coordinate indoor basketball tournaments, trivia night, pickleball games, chicken bowling, broom hockey, and snow golf. People also will vote on the photographs to be included in the popular Mackinac Island Recreational Development calendar.

Most Island horses have been sent to farms in Pickford and other towns the Upper Peninsula by now, but some remain here to pull drays and taxies. Sid De- Haan, the city foreman, says without summer crowds, the streets are easier to walk, but the snow and ice soon will make it difficult to haul carts without bicycles.

The Post Office and municipal buildings still are operating, but most of the hotels and downtown shops closed in November. Residents socialize at the post office and Doud’s Market in the morning, and unwind for drinks and meals at Mustang Lounge and Village Inn.

Groceries and other necessities are easy to find at Harrisonville General Store or Doud’s Market. Some residents will shop on the mainland, going over to St. Ignace by ferry, or by snowmobile, if the ice bridge forms. People also will fax grocery lists to stores in St. Ignace, which will then will send over items they order on the next ferry – at least until heavy ice shuts down ferry service.

Ferry service, on a limited schedule, will run for as much of the winter as possible. It stops altogether when the ice blocks its path, at which point residents are going to watch for signs that an ice bridge is forming. Sometimes it never does.

The ice bridge is a frozen roadway used by snowmobilers, skiers, and fat-tire cyclists, marked with discarded Christmas trees affixed with reflector tape for visibility at night. Subject to the whims of temperature, winds, and water currents, the winter highway is rerouted around shifting cracks and open channels, as required, by a cadre of volunteers. The formation of the bridge varies from year to year, lasting as little as four days to three months, or not at all.

A handful of community members, led by Fire Chief Jason St. Onge, spud holes in the ice to determine the depth of the ice and mark the safest route. After the route as been crudely marked, residents will line the trail with Christmas trees to make a more visible pathway.

Mr. Bradley and his wife, Jackie, have been involved in laying out the ice bridge in years past. It’s a community effort to maintain and monitor the Ice Bridge, he says. Everyone relies on the convenience and independence the Ice Bridge allows.

Not everyone on Mackinac Island prefers the ice bridge, however. Mr. DeHaan said he avoids it owing to the dangerous currents underneath.

Among the year-around population are those who would prefer that snowmobiles be banned from the Island because, as a motorized form of transportation, they say, the noise detracts away from the community’s timeless charm.

In the last two years, the ice bridge has failed to form. That permits residents to use the ferry to get back and forth throughout winter. Plane travel from the Island airport also is available all winter.

Mr. Bradley blames weatherrelated lake effects and climate change for the unusually mild winters Mackinac Island has seen in recent years. The water in the Straits of Mackinac retains some of its stored summer warmth in autumn, so downstate cities such as Grand Rapids, Detroit, and Traverse City often will see snow before the Island does. Because landmasses cool off and warm up slower than the air over the water, heavy fog is typical.

“It never entered my mind we would see a green Christmas,” Mr. Bradley said of recent mild winters. In years past, he said, the Island could have passed for the Arctic. “When I was a kid, we’d jump off Fort Mackinac tea room’s porch into snow banks below. Now we are lucky to have enough snow to get around.”

Plane tickets are $52 round-trip at Mackinac Island Airport. A plane ride to St. Ignace, therefore, is carefully planned for maximum benefit. Residents will use the entire day on errands and shopping only available on the mainland, like a dentist appointment, haircut, seeing a movie, shopping at department stores.

Many Islanders keep vehicles on the mainland for local errands or trips downstate. Indoor and outdoor storage options are available in St. Ignace.

According to Mr. Bradley, residents always have a “Plan B” when they leave the Island in the wintertime. Weather is so unpredictable that a cancelled return flight can leave one stranded. Residents pack a change of clothes and plan for a place to stay in case of an ill-timed storm.

Nature enthusiasts will argue that every season on Mackinac Island has its charm. According to Patricia Martin, the Nature Notes columnist for Mackinac Island Town Crier, wildlife thrives in the winter. Woodpeckers flitter through the forest’s evergreens and balsam trees. Coyotes, wolves, and deer travel over the ice bridge onto the Island. River otters play on floating ice chunks.

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