Northern Michigan: Early this year, the publishers of Beaver Island’s Beaver Beacon newspaper released a book of photographs and brief essays titled Life in the Beaver Island Archipelago. The book is arranged by season, and here we excerpt a selection from the chapter on this Northern Lake Michigan island in winter.
From the book’s introduction: As unpretentious as the essays and images are by themselves, they have a surprising cumulative effect. By presenting a kaleidoscopic perspective of island life, this book almost seems to be a kind of puzzle, a Rubik’s cube that requires just the right turning for its solution to appear. Taken together, these stories and pictures give rise to a satisfying sentiment for the reader: “This is why Beaver Island is so special to me.”
There was a time, before Coast Guard cutters, before the closed season law, when island fishermen wanted to set nets late in the fall and get an early start in the spring; it was a long time to do without having any money. But ice can wreak havoc with a wood hull, and to stave a hole could cost them days or even weeks.
The solution was to “steel-clad” the wooden tugs. Every fisherman here learned to do this—by trial and error. Thin sheet metal could be had, but it was expensive, and sheets were difficult to bend. So the accepted method was to use buckets or tin cans—the larger, the better. The tops (if there was one) and bottoms were removed, a cut was made up one side, and the can was hammered flat. While the entire side could be clad, the cladding usually started where the beam was widest, and went forward.
The pieces were nailed onto the boat from bottom to top and back to front. Each edge was tarred. The metal was bent over the top edge and nailed securely there; side nails were shorter. The rub rail might be removed and reinstalled over the cladding.
The prow was given special treatment. Large gas barrels were sometimes cut and nailed on here, bent around the prow; one or two would usually suffice. Right at the prow a section of iron rail, bent to be an exact fit, was sometimes added—either over the barrel stock or in place of it.
Kids followed suit. Many of the kids in St. James had a wood dinghy, frequently hand made—they were always patching leaks. It was more than a toy; it provided training for a likely future career. Kids copy their elders, and they copied the steel-cladding too. It wasn’t necessary; they weren’t going to break ice. But they could pretend to be the Monitor, or the Merrimac. The kids’ boats and adults’ boats made this a harbor full of icebreakers of every size and description.
From early in the Mormon Era, carrying the mail across the ice was a sure way to earn $20—if one survived. Augustus LeBlanc was one of the first, and boldest, starting in 1851; after 20 years his sons took over.
The usual route was out past Hog Island, where a shack provided shelter if needed, on to Grayʼs Reef and Waugoshance, and coming ashore at Cross Village. It could be done in a day, but frequently took longer. The ice-walkers encountered every conceivable peril, from white-outs that left them disoriented to rough ice, thin ice, or no ice at all: chasms in which slush-filled water forced long detours.
They sometimes used a horse or dog sled, which allowed them to carry tools: planks to get over a barricade, and saws so they could cut out an ice raft to navigate a chasm. Even so, the record is full of tragedies. Horses fell in and drowned, and so did men. Sometimes a body had to be left on the ice until better weather permitted recovery.
One of the most harrowing tales involved a dog-sled trip down from Naubinway in which the team was stalked by wolves. They drew closer and closer, until the mail carrier drew his twin Colt 45s and shot the lead wolf—which quickly became dinner for its former friends.
Cars and trucks made the crossing in the 20th century—such as the time materials were needed to build the Roosevelt School, and desperate island men needed the work. These days we have snowmobiles; most winters see a group head for Mackinac Island or the U.P. The last recorded walk from Charlevoix was done by three men in 1961.
Thankfully, the coldest month is also the shortest. But the days too are short; night arrives well before dinner, providing a good excuse for eating by candlelight. An old-time islander is known to have remarked, “It’s unfair that Valentine’s Day is in February because children conceived then interrupt the start of hunting season with their birth.”
On Groundhog Day most groundhogs stay in their burrows, afraid of our many shotguns. They’re not the only ones to keep the blankets over their ears at this time of year.
Of the 650 residents of Beaver Island, there might be under 400 actually here in mid-February. To counteract the sudden isolation, those who remain order all sorts of things from the Internet and the dozens of catalogs that arrive each day. That adds a third mandatory stop to the routine of each day: besides the post office and the grocery store, the airport, to see what might have come via UPS.
The cold weather has its compensations. Wood splits so easily; oak in particular almost flies apart from the merest axe whack, filling the thin air with its heartening pungency. The ice shanties are all up; the men think they are getting away, but it’s the women who feel freed.
The teenage coyotes begin their whole-hearted jamboree, yip-yip-yipping as they run the ridges in small packs. Their plaintive howls are easy to translate: these young bucks want some action. They play a kind of trick-or-treat game, silently sneaking close to a warm home before unleashing a blood-curdling yowl and racing back into the night, grinning their crooked-mouth smiles at having scared the bejeebies out of the resident who had only wanted to cuddle up with a new book from the library.
One old-timer listened closely before offering an interpretation of their song. “It’s the same for all of ’em,” he pronounced. “They’re saying, The $50 bounty’s gone, the bounty’s gone!”
Late in February there’s an exodus to the Grand Rapids Party. A comparable Chicago Party started earlier, but the closer one gained ascendancy in the 1950s. Island musicians always take part, glad for the chance to sell some CDs afterward. There’s no discrimination—anyone of any age can take part, as long as they know the steps.
On a warm winter day the combination of a heavy snow and a strong wind can pack the trees’ trunks and limbs and make it impossible to see for more than a hundred feet. Out for a walk, the dome of white makes landmarks disappear—so it’s easy to become disoriented, and lost.
The West Side Road is particularly subject to this phenomenon because the steep bluff creates a turbulence that roils the air, often blasting each branch from all sides. The weight of affixed snow creates a second marvel: the branches bend down, giving rise to a sense of passing through a graceful bower—of being led into the heart of the mystery by a natural tunnel.
This is where the railroad track was laid—not because there’s a gravel ridge here, as is sometimes said, but because it bisects the upland hardwood forest, the groves of maple and beech, the less common stands of cherry and oak. But for whatever reason, we’re free to imagine the stream of smoke generated by the effort of pulling a full load of logs back to town on a winter day such as this, with a constant smudge of soot overhead black-marking the passing.
As the nights grow longer, we feel the confinement of being locked in, and turn to dreams as our way to escape. Not just any dreams, but dreams of the days getting longer, the skies a little brighter, and the imminence of spring. Although itʼs months away, St. Pat’s celebration gets a walk-on part: contests in the afternoon—everyone wants to see what new wrinkle Richieʼs added to the obstacle race—and music at night.
We daydream of Easter. The kids hunting for eggs. The Talent Show—this could be the year we get up on stage.
In the meantime there’s work to do. All the things we put off when we were too busy to think. We start in, but our heart’s not in it, and we begin to wonder if the ice is solid enough yet to scoot over to Squaw Island to see how thick the rabbit tracks are. There might be something to chase on the ice.
Our airports are busy as people make their getaways. Camaraderie is heightened among those who stay. The snow comes, the snow goes. The air is crisp. We eat dinner in the dark. We build a fire. Two hundred TV channels, yet less to see than before. We rush to catch the phone. A good friend drops by, who won’t admit he’s heard our story before. Alone again, we close our eyes. We can dream.