The Trunnion - Blog of Patrick McBriarty

A Taste of Mackinac Island in Winter

January 25th, 2016 - By Patrick T. McBriarty

To begin 2016, I spend most of January in an empty hotel on Mackinac Island.  r-e-d-R-U-M, R-E-D-R-U-M!!  As a Chicago author and avid sailor the opportunity to visit in the winter was simply too unique and tantalizing to pass up.  Having participated multiple times in the Chicago-Mac Race, I was quite familiar with the island in high-season — when the primary means of transportation is by bicycle, wagon, or carriage.  Here this more than 100 year-old way of life has been preserved, and except for emergency vehicles, no automobiles are allowed on the island.  But, would I simply go crazy by myself for so long?
Visitors typically arrive by ferry and are greeted by the smell of fudge and horses.  This odor that is part island charm and part pragmatics, was surprisingly missing as I arrived.  The air was clean, cold, and crisp, and the sweet, earthy mix of horses and confectioners was absent.  The usually busy Main Street was like a ghost town with practically no one on the street or sidewalks.  The hotels, restaurants and shops all closed for the season.  Originally a rendezvous for Native Americans and then fur traders, it has become a huge draw for summer getaways by the less rugged, but often equally as curious American tourist.

However, my invitation to Mackinac Island in the winter was not spooky.  It was a gift, both literally and figuratively.  Yes, I admit I still had mental reservations and concerns.  Several years ago I met,  and am now terribly thankful to, Liz Ware who is now associated with the Mission Point Resort.  She arranged and believed in my work enough to grant an Artist in Residency at Mission Point.  This meant all I had to do was get here, feed myself, and focus on my work for a couple weeks.  The figurative gift was having almost no distractions to writing.  Getting away from home to the simplicity and serenity of Mackinac Island, which inspired me creatively, allowed me to concentrate, and the Island’s unpretentious, unhurried, familiar, and laidback feel immediately put me at ease.  Fears unfounded, it literally and figuratively made for the greatest gift an author could imagine.  It is true that once there I walked through all the open rooms on the entire third floor under the pretense of looking for a spare blanket, and it did help calm my early fears.  Still the least sound carried and it was a bit weird.

It was really nice discovering after being on “the Island” (as the locals put it) for a week I became the envy of friends and family, who were mostly tongue-tied by questions.  They really wanted to experience it themselves.  Usually the best they could do was ask —  “What it is like?”  “How do you get there?” Or, “Is it like in the Shining?”  For a visitor, the winter experience itself IS surprisingly simple – just life on an island, in the off-season.  So what is there to say — how do you explain “simple” to city people or “the Island” to the uninitiated?  Well, I will try. . . .

Many would ask, who goes to Mackinac in January? Are you crazy, wasn’t it cold enough in Chicago already? The short answer is well, not a lot of people, and yes–Heerrree’s Joohnnieee (I would joke), but somehow the usual 5-15 degree colder temperatures and greater snowfall seemed easier to deal with than in Chicago. Estimates put somewhere between 300 and 500 people on Mackinac in winter, but to me it felt like a lot less. Either way getting on and off the Island, for locals is fairly routine, and walking to town, getting a bite to eat, or a drink is much more straightforward than in high-season. For instance, it was unusual to see anyone while walking to town, particularly after dark. In the summer you are constantly dodging and weaving to get anywhere as the crowds and shops create so much more to do and see.

I came to Mackinac to do some writing, and was initially slightly apprehensive that it might be too remote, too disconnected, and two weeks on my own would be way too long to still keep my sanity.  Instead, I found it better and more amazing that I could have imagined.  Shedding the city mindset and reclaiming a sense of space and nature were transformative.  Really, TRANSFORMATIVE!  I know that word is overused and tired, yet how else to describe the peace and joy of simple living, day-to-day.  Getting off the treadmill for an extended stay gave me an internal sense of peace, that had I missed for longer than I knew.

Not to imply life is so simple it is backward here.  There is internet, cable television, and cell phone coverage – never had a connectivity problems – and two restaurants and a grocery store are open year-round, so all the basics are available.  My lodgings included a kitchenette, so it was easy to work most or all-day and each day or two take the 10-minute walk or 5-minute snowmobile to Doud’s Market, the Mustang Lounge, or Village Inn to eat or procure supplies.  Living or visiting, even in the winter, is very doable, just not so elaborate or complicated as summer.  And maybe that is the best difference!

The people on the Island are reserved, allow newcomers to come and go about their business with minimal interruption. Yet, everyone is really nice, friendly, and interested, but not nosey. Some might mistake their reserve for aloofness, but just share something about yourself and you start a conversation. Folks here will happily share the island’s charm and their experiences. The best part is there is town, but I never really felt like I was missing anything, whether going there or not. Of course initially I didn’t know anybody, so this was perfect for writing. However, if I desired social interaction I could find it and if I didn’t want to bundle up and walk to town it would still be there the next day or day after.

Granted a good chunk of any day can simply be planning or preparing the next meal, but there is a nice simplicity and ease here, of that being your biggest concern. This allowed space to, if you are me — focus on writing, OR if you are not — whatever hobby or project you might wish to pursue. Essentially there is time. Time to gaze out at the water, to track the changing weather, watch freighters going through the Straights, wander around, or sit by a fire and tell stories. Mix in a vast array of birds, ducks, the occasional owl, beaver lodge with five residents, and the harbor otters provide just enough distractions to watch or explore and not be bored. I even tried exploring at night and ventured a ways around the back side of the Island. Other than my own fears it was really not scary, just really dark and quiet.

My favorite distraction, mid-day or late afternoon was to cross-country ski. One hour usually turned into two or more. After a short uphill walk, I found the solitude of the woods and lure of the island’s interior made it tough to return to work. The snow was plentiful, usually fresh from a light dusting overnight. Each outing was different as there were more trails than I could explore — many of them regularly groomed for cross-country skiing. Mackinac Island is only about four-miles long by two miles wide, but it offers more than 140 miles of mostly wooded roads and well marked trails. I brought my own skis, but they can be rented on island, although snowmobiles cannot. I tried both at night. Night snowmobiling was thrilling and made possible by the built in headlights, however skiing in the woods was prohibitive. Clouds obscured the star and moonlight, so about 50 yards into the trees I had to turn around it just too dark to see the tracks or terrain to ski. Next time I will bring a headlamp and give it another go. At the beginning of the season lanterns are placed on many trails and about once a month a night ski and ice skating is organized. Of course I missed the first of these not knowing it was going on one night at the beginning of my stay.

As mentioned, I had the use of a snowmobile to run errands or explore more of the island with my camera. The natural beauty and varied weather provided a different backdrop day-to-day, even hour-to-hour. With winter sunrises at about 8 am and sunset around 5:30 pm, the shortened day seemed to let everyone relax a bit, ease into the day and less likely to stay up late.

In the off-season most days a regular militia of workers arrive with the morning ferry (about 8:30 from St. Ignace), assuming the ice has not become too thick, and leave with the evening ferry (about 4:30 pm). This ingenious crew of mostly trades people do the major maintenance, refurbish, and improvement projects for the hotels and businesses on an island. Ingenious because much of the work is done in below-freezing conditions on an island were you can’t just run to a Home Depot if you suddenly need or forgot something. A lot of work gets done to facilitate the great hospitality tourists come to depend on all summer. A good handful, any particular day, were working on the Straights Lodge, the big rambling 3-story building the part of the Mission Point Resort that is closest to town.

The island tends to draw in real characters and some of the most interesting people. The winter folk, workers, and residents greatly appreciate the place and most have some kind of creative pursuit on the side. From the guy painting the hallway walls, where I was staying, who recently completed a novel, to the security guy who is part historian and former film professional. This naturally beautiful island and its unique residents have the longest running mayor of any municipality in the United States, as Margaret Doud has held the office for the past 40 years (the mayor is elected annually).

Staying any length of time off-season you realize how safe the island is, which provides an added simplicity and peace of mind. Since everyone knows everyone among the locals, word travels fast so anything unusual is quickly noted. So you can leave the keys in your snowmobile. No one is going to take it. However, the roofing crew may move it a hundred-feet over, while it sits for two days, to do their work. I did however loose my hat. Figuring it was somewhere in my room; walking into town that afternoon I spy it. Obviously dropped the night before, someone had thoughtfully hung it on the street sign in front of Doud’s Market, were I was sure to find it. These little niceties redeem one’s faith in human kind.

As part of the Artist in Residency, I was invited to talk at the Mackinac Island Public School.  It was all arranged and I was invited for lunch, did a read aloud to the three Kindergarten and 1st Graders, then to the dozen or so 2nd and 3rd Graders, and finally talked about writing and what it is like to be an author to the 4th, 5th, and 6th Graders.  The school is very well run, similar to a Montessori, as they combine grades given the approximately 80-students in Kindergarten through 12th Grade.  The kids were inquisitive and fun, had a blast at recess playing on the snow mound created by the plow, and the teachers I met were great.  I’d happily visit again and left behind a copy of each of my children’s books for the school library.

It has been a great stay, I’ve met some wonderful new people, and really enjoyed my experience.  Slowing down to enjoy the simple things, I wish I could have stayed longer, and will definitely go back again in the winter!  (And really, it wasn’t scary at all!! 😉

Winter Travel Details:
Getting there from Chicago is about a 7-hour drive, eight if you count loosing an hour with the time change.  So it generally requires staying overnight at St. Ignace to catch the ferry the next day.  This means crossing the Mackinac Toll Bridge connecting the lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan, which requires a $4 toll.  Usually the last ferry off-season is at 3:30 pm, but this varies with the ice, weather, and season so always check the ferry schedule.  For day to day updates see their Facebook page.  If the ferry is not running or you really want to get there check into Great Lakes Air between St. Ignace and Mackinac Island as an alternative regularly shuttling folks on or off island year-round.  A seat for this 20 minute flight usually costs a little more than a round-trip ferry ticket.

I must also mention, although it varies year-to-year, if a winter is cold enough the four-miles of Lake Huron between St. Ignace and Mackinac Island will freeze solid enough to create an ice bridge.  When this happens the number of winter visitors to the Island increases, particularly on the weekends, as snow machines and the occasional cross-country skier can cross from the UP to the Island and back.  A hardy group of souls test the ice and re-purpose local Christmas trees by planting them in the ice to mark the route.  This phenomena is captured in the documentary Ice Bridge.

Winter Accommodations:
Staying in the winter on Mackinac Island the accommodations are characterized as clean but basic.  Year to year this may change, but in 2015/16, just three places were open for visitors, the Pontiac Lodge, Bogan Lane Inn, and Cottage Inn (limited winter season), unless you know someone who has property on the island.  So the Island is not completely shutdown and it is possible to visit and stay with advance reservations and a little additional planning.

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noun   trun·nion   \ˈtrən-yən\

a pin or pivot on which something is supported.

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