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Stateside Podcast: Beaver Island: The Anti-Mackinac Island

Main Street on Beaver island pictured on Friday, July 14, 2023.
Neil Blake | MLive.com/Neil Blake
Courtesy of Sheri McWhirter
Main Street on Beaver island pictured on Friday, July 14, 2023.

Mackinac Island is undeniably Michigan’s most well-known island, but a team of reporters at MLive recently wrote about another island that’s just as worthy of celebration — not just as a summer vacation destination, but as an ecological gem.

Sheri McWhirter and Garrett Ellison, both environment reporters at MLive, recently traveled to Lake Michigan's Beaver Island with their team and returned with glowing remarks. McWhirter called the island “an environmental paradise for those who love the outdoors, who love hiking, who love birding, swimming, kayaking, any of that.”

With no fudge shops, no forts, and no horse-drawn carriages, Beaver Island is what Ellison described as the “anti-Mackinac Island.” According to Ellison, the island’s citizens have no interest in becoming a tourist hotspot, or in tracking where they rank in “top 10 travel destination” lists.

“The island will not entertain you,” Ellison said. “You have to know how to bring your own fun.”

Ellison noted that the island is ecologically similar to rural backroads of Benzie or Leelanau County. Situated approximately 30 miles off the shore in Lake Michigan, Beaver Island is relatively remote.

One of the many ecological wonders of the island is its population of piping plovers. These endangered birds often nest on an uninhabited island just west of Beaver Island called High Island. Under the observation of biologists who work for the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, a record number of plovers fledged on the island this year.

With this success, there were still preservation challenges. Protective cages that researchers placed around the nests attracted unwanted attention from merlins, a species of falcon. Nests that were left unprotected could easily be overlooked and trampled by human beachgoers. “Plovers build nests on the shoreline out of tiny little pebbles and lay their eggs on top of these other tiny little pebbles. And for a beach walker or someone with a dog on the beach, they might not see the nest and they might trample it,” McWhirter explained.

Although McWhirter had occasionally reported on plovers over previous years, this trip to Beaver Island was her first time seeing them herself. And the experience did not disappoint.

“Whenever I was able to see them, they were so fuzzy and their legs were so tiny," McWhirter said. "I nearly died right there on the beach. It was so adorable."

Another notable ecological feature of Beaver Island is the presence of monkey flowers, which McWhirter described as tiny wildflowers that are reminiscent of snapdragons. As these flowers only grow in spring-fed streams that flow through cedar swamps, they are quite rare.

Beaver Island is also home to ash trees. Across Michigan and much of the Midwest, many of these trees have fallen prey to emerald ash borers. As this invasive insect cannot fly the 30-mile distance from the mainland to Beaver Island, ash trees there have remained protected and emerald ash borer populations have stayed limited.

Beyond the island’s natural abundance, it has also seen several cultural shifts. The Odawa lived on Beaver Island for centuries before Irish immigrants settled on the island. In the 1850s, Mormon religious leader James Jesse Strang established a Mormon kingdom on the island. Today, the Beaver Island Historical Society operates in the building where Strang established a newspaper.

“There is still a sect of the religion called Strangites that lives in Wisconsin, and sometimes they do genealogical research on the island,” Ellison said. “But I got the sense that [Beaver Island’s residents] are tired of kind of accommodating this perpetual outside interest in the king.”

Instead, many are more interested in elevating the life and work of Feodor Protar, an Estonian immigrant who came to the island and eventually practiced as an unlicensed physician in the early 20th century. Today, he’s credited with helping the island through a period in which the island did not have a licensed physician.

Ellison and McWhirter got the sense that the people on Beaver Island want to be known as a “welcoming place,” with an emphasis on respecting the environment.

“That sentiment really rings true out there. They really embrace that: Come to Beaver Island, experience how wonderful and beautiful it is — but don't harm it while you're there,” McWhirter said.

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Ronia Cabansag is a producer for Stateside. She comes to Michigan Public from Eastern Michigan University, where she earned a BS in Media Studies & Journalism and English Linguistics with a minor in Computer Science.
Olivia Mouradian recently graduated from the University of Michigan and joined the Stateside team as an intern in May 2023.