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Great Lakes islanders band together to preserve their way of life

There are about 32,000 islands in the Great Lakes. Most are uninhabited. But for those who live year-round on about 30 of them, it can be an isolating experience. Now, Great Lakes islanders are getting together to tackle some of the problems they have in common.

The idea was born in the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes, inspired by a non-profit group in Maine that serves the needs of residents of 15 islands off Maine’s coast.

Matt Preisser is the team’s lake coordinator. He says they wanted to pay more attention to the needs of island communities in the Great Lakes.

“The awareness of island life is very poor among mainland decision makers and the general public and we think there’s actually some potential value in mainland communities learning from islands,” he says.

When you’re miles from the mainland, that isolation can drive you to come up with creative solutions. Like where you get your energy, how you get around, and how you manage your waste.

“When you live on an island community, everything you create has to be stored there, or reused, or you have to pay to ship it off on a barge to the mainland, and that’s not cheap,” says Preisser.

Back in September, more than 70 people from 12 islands in the Great Lakes region met up on Beaver Island for the first-ever islands summit. This year, they’re working to launch the Great Lakes Islands Coalition.

Islands in winter

At the tail end of tourist season, I took a little trip on a car ferry across Lake Erie to South Bass Island.

Here in the Lake Erie islands, kids don’t take a bus to school. They take a plane.

I caught up with Pilot Bob Ganley as he was loading kids up to fly them a minute and a half home to Middle Bass Island.

“We’ll have our share of snow days but we also have fog days or low cloud days or it’s too windy to fly days. If we can’t fly they don’t get to school,” says Ganley.

The lake, and the weather define life on an island. But there are a lot of other challenges.

One of them is how to preserve open space when the land is at a premium for hotels and cottages and tourist attractions.

Lisa Brohl has lived on South Bass Island since 1989 with her husband Russ and their kids. The Brohls took me to Massie Cliffside Preserve.

“We’ve got an 11 acre preserve that’s got cliffs, hare bells, columbines, beautiful flowers on the lakeside; a fishing dock for people to enjoy,” says Lisa.

She led the creation of several preserves on the island, including the Massie preserve. It’s a feat when land is so scarce.

“Because our starting prices are $65,000 an acre. So we’re talking quite a bit of money and investment in land but we’re also looking at an island that sees over 750,000 visitors a year, and so as far as how many people actually use these areas, we have a lot, so we can say it’s well worth the investment,” she says.

Russ Brohl is a retired lake freighter and ferry captain.

Lisa and Russ Brohl
Credit Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Lisa and Russ Brohl in their living room, with a 10 pound walleye Lisa caught through the ice three years ago.

“Because my livelihood never revolved around the economics of the island, I never cared if we had tourism or not, though it’s everybody’s bread and butter here. But boy, in the summertime, we have to share this island with thousands of people. I don’t know if we’ll stay here forever, but who knows!” he says.

Lisa and Russ say people who live year-round on islands wrestle with keeping housing affordable, with finding work, and making sure they have access to medical care.

School boat
Credit Lisa Brohl
Lisa and Russ Brohl's kids, Russell and Gretchen, in the school boat in the late 1980's, with school boat operator Bob Glauser.

“We have a paramedic, and we can also buy membership in life flight insurance. We have a volunteer fire department and EMS… I used to be a volunteer EMT here on the island too. Just about everybody’s taken their turn at one time or another,” says Lisa with a laugh.

“At Middle Bass, they didn’t have any ambulance, so they’d load you in the back of a pickup truck to take you down to the airport to fly you off in a helicopter or life flight you off,” says Russ.

He says Middle Bass Island in Lake Erie has an ambulance now. But these are all things that can make it difficult for people to stay on an island as they grow older.

An island passport

Peter Huston says until he went to the islands summit, he hadn’t really given other islands in the region a lot of thought.

“That right there was an ‘aha moment’ that you can say, yeah, I see how I connect with all these islands, and let’s go forward as a collective to use that leverage, and have our voices heard both legislatively and financially,” he says.

Huston is a filmmaker who also works for the Put-in-Bay Chamber of Commerce on South Bass Island. He says one of the ideas that came out of the summit is to create an “island passport.”

“The passport idea allows for people to be able to go and visit different islands that have these different strengths,” he says. Huston imagines people could get their passport punched when they visit Great Lakes islands, and islanders could use the passport as a way to benefit the islands as a group.

Filling in the gaps in the data

Another big effort that’s part of the coalition is to collect better information about islanders.

Brandon Hofstedt is the faculty director of Northland College’s Center for Rural Communities.

“We try to collect information related to what makes rural communities good places to live, work and play,” he says.

Hofstedt says islands have a lot in common with small towns.

“What you measure matters, and oftentimes decisions are made based on information that is provided to them, and in rural communities but also island communities in particular, there is a dearth of information out there,” he says.

For example, he says, census data can lump island communities in with the mainland, and the smaller the community, the more likely that information is to be unreliable or invalid.

Hofstedt is creating an “islands indicator project” to collect more robust data on demographics, household income, health care, and the natural environment on islands, among many other things.

One of the overall goals of this effort is to keep island life sustainable. Making sure people can raise their families, and grow old in these communities, and maintain a way of life that’s unique.

Pam Grassmick is the 4th generation of her family to live on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. She says island life is pretty special.

“Our pace is slower, it’s extremely safe. We leave our keys in the car and our homes unlocked, and where else can you do that?” says Grassmick.

Credit Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Lauren Peter, Joseph Burns and Gwena Market are students at Put-in-Bay School. They all say going to a school with just 79 students makes you feel like everyone's part of a family.

Summer tourism is crucial for many island economies in our region. But Grassmick says it’s also important to think about the people who live there year-round.

“If we really want to go and vacation on these islands, and islands do provide wonderful recreational experiences; we’re working on our water trail right now and in the spring of the year we have a lot of birders come in, but you have to have people to take care of people. So that’s important that we kind of support these islands,” she says.

She says islanders are strong and independent, but they rely on each other in a crisis. And she says now with the islands coalition, these isolated communities are becoming more visible – both to each other, and to state leaders who can help keep this way of life going.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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