BEAVER ISLAND – A bird chirped. A wave splashed the lakeshore. The newsman stood on the bank with his camera and took a photo. Because this was today’s news.
It was a sunny, summer afternoon. Joe Moore was on his daily rounds of Beaver Island in his 2003 Dodge Intrepid, a “real Beaver Island car” as he calls it, with a wedged pole keeping the broken driver’s seat from collapsing backward. In a place where most of the roads are unpaved gravel riddled with divots and bumps, a lot of cars become Beaver Island cars after a time.
“Somebody from the mainland might get to the point where they go, ‘Why don’t they fix these roads?’ But this is part of the character of Beaver Island,” he said. “You’re not going to be going 40 mph on this road, are you?”
Small-town life is preserved on remote Beaver Island
It’s the most isolated place in Michigan. And despite sweeping changes elsewhere, life on Beaver Island remains serene.
Ryan Garza, Wochit
Moore runs “Beaver Island News on the ‘Net,” a website that provides the island’s only source of daily news coverage. Its motto is “Today’s News as Close to Today as Possible.” Its only reporter is him.
“Look, it’s a bird,” he said, pointing at the water. He took another picture for the news.
The website features the agendas, minutes and livestreams of the island’s municipal meetings, videos of church services and local high school sports, plus the latest from the world of nature. That afternoon, he was on Barney’s Lake Road, a winding gravel strip that runs along Barney’s Lake, which was named for a guy whose first name was Barney and who lived in a cabin here long ago.
“I make this trip at least twice a day,” said the 70-year-old retired paramedic, who spent years before that as a teacher in the island’s only school. “What I usually look for is wildflowers or deer. Or today, I’m hoping, because of the storm, I might see some loons on the lake.”
Beaver Island is the most isolated place in the state. It’s essentially an elevated forest in the middle of Lake Michigan, surrounded by a constellation of smaller, uninhabited islands with names like Whiskey Island and Squaw Island. You can get there only by a half-hour plane trip or a two-hour ferry ride from the mainland on the choppy, seesaw waters of Lake Michigan, and even then only if the weather is good. Roughly 500 people live here all year among 54 square miles of beaches and woods, most clustered in a tiny strip of old homes, small shops, quirky little hotels, sun-faded boat docks, a couple of bars and restaurants, and a 162-year-old lighthouse on the island’s northern tip. The atmosphere is an amplified version of old-fashioned, small-town life.
And this isolation has kept it safe — by late summer there had been only a single case of someone testing positive for the novel coronavirus, and even that one instance was widely reported to be a false positive.
“What are those two birds doing?” Moore asked enthusiastically, aiming his Canon SLR in their direction as they bounced on the lake. “Looks like they were playing tag or something. You know, the other day I was out here, and in this tall grass out here there was a little coyote playing hide-and-seek with his brother or sister, and they’d be laying down in the grass, and then one would stick their head up and I’d hear yip! yip! And then they’d disappear.”
This was a typically busy day for the newsman. In two hours, there would be a church service to livestream for the website. Two hours before this, he was at the island’s maritime museum, where he provided his subscribers with coverage of a lakeside presentation in which a man spent an hour ringing a loud collection of old-time whistles that had come from historic sawmills, boats and factories.
“Oh my God, it was fantastic,” Moore said. “I got video of it.”
But between those tasks he had a brief window for his favorite coverage — the news of the wilderness, which encompasses nearly the entire island.
Beaver Island’s remoteness has kept development to a minimum. There are no chain stores or hotels, no fast-food restaurants, no high-end lakefront condos. There’s a single gas station on the whole island. And only one full-time sheriff’s deputy year-round.
It draws relatively few visitors compared to a similar place like Mackinac Island, whose very existence is geared toward tourism. By contrast, here the pace is drowsy, the lifestyle is languid, activities are low-key, and most of the time it’s dead quiet outside, except for the bells of the old church ringing as soft as wind chimes every few hours, and the ever-present sounds of the lake all around. There are no traffic noises, no rattling bangs from industry, no crowds to speak of. Almost nothing but the calming sounds of nature.
“What do you hear?” Moore asked. The birds chirped. The waves of the water washed ashore in a rhythm. A deep stillness radiated in every direction. And there was nobody else for miles around.
“This,” he said, “is why I live here.”
Table of Contents
A royal pain
There once was a king who ruled the island, the only king America ever had.
In the early years of Mormonism, after the death of founder Joseph Smith in 1844, followers Brigham Young and a lawyer named James Strang vied to succeed him. Young took his followers to Salt Lake City, where the Mormon church is based to this day. Strang took his followers, including members of Smith’s family, to Beaver Island in 1848.
At the time, the island, which got its name from French explorers for all the beavers they found living there, was home only to a small number of Indians from the Ottawa and Ojibwe tribes and some fishermen who’d moved from the mainland. Suddenly, it was overrun by thousands of Mormons, who crowned Strang their king in 1850 during a ceremony for which he wore a red flannel cape and a crown of paper and tinsel while he sat on a chair padded with green moss.
In his six-year rule, he and his followers built homes, roads and a large temple made of logs. He founded a daily newspaper and started a successful sawmill that sold cordwood for fuel to passing ships.
The federal government considered this king in their midst a pest and ordered him arrested on several charges, including counterfeiting, trespassing on government land and impeding delivery of the mail. A contingent of Marines and U.S. Marshals was sent to the island by President Millard Filmore, and they brought Strang and three followers back to Detroit in 1851 for trial, in which Strang acted as his own defense attorney. Not only was he was acquitted by the jury, he was later elected to two terms in the Michigan Legislature, where he represented now-nonexistent Manitou County, cobbled together from the islands in Lake Michigan.
But his increasingly autocratic rule caused friction, especially when he ordered the island’s women to start wearing bloomers. When a woman refused, Strang had her husband whipped. Days later, that man and an accomplice sneaked up on Strang on a dock in the harbor and shot him three times, then pistol whipped him for good measure. The assassins were taken to Mackinac Island, tried, fined $1.25 and released to a celebration thrown for them by the anti-Beaver Island residents of Mackinac Island.
The king’s presence is still prominent on the island in the name of King’s Highway, one of its main roads; and the island’s seat of government, named St. James Township. The 130-year-old King Strang Hotel still stands by the waterfront as a restored private club, the print shop where Strang published his newspaper is now a museum, and signs around town chronicle the island’s royal history, including a marker at the shoreline where he was killed.
After his death, nearly 2,600 of his followers were driven from Beaver Island by non-Mormons fed up with six years of this bizarre monarchy, many sent away with just the clothes on their backs as most of their houses were burned down. Even now, Strang still has a few hundred followers, most based in Wisconsin.
The next wave of migrants to Beaver Island came from Ireland, drawn by reports of incredible fishing here. So many of them arrived that the most popular language on the island for years was Gaelic. Even now, Beaver Island is still called “America’s Emerald Isle.” Its small businesses have names like Donegal Danny’s Pub, McDonough’s Market and Dalwhinnie Bakery. The popular beach along the island’s west coast is named Donegal Bay. “Cead Mile Failte,” reads a sign at the ferry dock, welcoming visitors in Gaelic.
“Oh yeah, it’s very Irish,” said Father Jim Siler as he stood on the steps of Holy Cross Catholic Church, greeting parishioners as they arrived at the 168-year-old church for Saturday Mass. “There was no room for outsiders to live here, and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. That why it’ll never be a Mackinac Island. For all those years it was, ‘This is ours.’ ”
Next door was the old convent, now a vacation rental for tourists, from which the nuns of the island worked for years as teachers for the public school after few people from the mainland were willing to move here to teach full time in the middle of a lake. Last year, the school had about 50 kids from K-12. Its graduating class consisted of five seniors.
“There’s still some of that mindset,” said the 59-year-old priest. “When they go to the mainland, some of the locals will say, ‘I’ve got to go to the United States today,’ and they’re very protective of their history. They’re very proud. And there’s something cool about that, too. That’s what makes it unique.”
News that’s fit to print
Inside the church, Joe Moore the reporter was getting his camera ready to livestream at the same time that Joe Moore the choir member was getting ready to sing and play organ from the choir loft.
Moore never expected to be this busy in his retirement. He became a journalist accidentally, out of anger. Years ago, after his time as a teacher, he was director of the island’s EMS. One day he learned that the township board had voted to cut his salary in half — six weeks before, far too late to address it. So he began livestreaming all their meetings and publishing their agendas for the public, much to the annoyance of some of his targets. “Now everyone would know exactly what they said and how they said it,” he said. “It was important that people would know what all these many groups on Beaver Island were up to.”
He added video coverage of school sports like volleyball, soccer and basketball, plus Sunday services from the island’s three churches, as well as every board and committee meeting. He even livestreams funerals.
“Beaver Island’s not too easy to get to. Sometimes, if somebody’s having a funeral, there’s a whole lot of people who’d like to attend but they can’t come. So I livestream it as long as the family’s OK with that, so other people can be there. That actually happened last summer when it was so foggy the planes couldn’t fly. People sat in the airport and watched it on their phones.”
Now, the retiree has become a one-man news outlet with a new full-time job, one that doesn’t pay. “Last year I lost $12,000,” he said, laughing. “So I’m not doing it for the money, obviously. It’s a service.”
Right now the website has about 250 subscribers who pay $40 a year, $60 for bonus video coverage. They get tons of content for their money.
In just the past week or so, for example, he’d provided coverage of the Board of Education meeting, the Rural Health Center board meeting, the Public Works Committee meeting and the Waste Management Committee meeting, plus video of services at the island’s three churches.
The site also featured public service announcements such as a job opening as the food service coordinator for the island’s school, an upcoming blood drive, the arrival of a tall ship docked by the museum and an announcement that the island’s little library was reopening after being shuttered out of coronavirus caution.
There’s also Phyllis’ Daily Weather, compiled by Moore’s wife using a home weather station and a look out the door. She’ll note, for example, that it’s “63 degrees this morning, feels like 66.” She mentioned one day that the couple’s Yorkie was scared of last night’s storm. And she’ll post trivia, celebrity birthdays and the Word of the Day. But it also comes with specific local weather data and a detailed nautical forecast.
And always, woven through it all, is the nature coverage from Moore’s daily drives around the island. “Another amazing bird,” announced one headline that week. “Today, only one adult loon and one loon baby were seen on Barney’s Lake,” began one feature. Another story reported some deer playing in a field.
“When you care about a community you want to give back to that community,” he said. “That’s why I do the church services, I do the public meetings, I do whatever I think is going to help people be informed and get by.”
“But it’s worth it to me,” he added. “It’s important.”
Long and winding roads
Paul Cole’s car rolled slowly down the waterfront. And everybody waved at him. The walkers waved, the bicyclists waved, the drivers waved. Even people who never saw him before.
“People always wave here,” explained Cole, the 57-year-old president of the Beaver Island Chamber of Commerce, a relatively low-key role on an island with limited development. “That’s the essence. People wave. I know a lady the other day pulled over in her car just checking the oil, and she said, ‘I had 12 people stop to see if I was OK.’ She said, literally, in like 15 minutes she had 12 people.”
Cole was driving about 14 mph down King’s Highway on a sunny afternoon. He was, he said, “boodling.”
Boodling is one of the main pastimes on Beaver Island. To boodle is to get in a car — sometimes with a cooler full of beer — and spend hours driving around the island’s winding, remote, deserted gravel roads, immersing yourself in the wilderness, stopping to talk to anyone you encounter on the way. The term is Irish, though few remember what it means apart from wandering aimlessly for fun.
“The goal is to not have a goal, and to get in a car and go wherever the car takes you, and you don’t have a schedule,” Cole explained. “If somebody’s with you and they have a schedule, they’re not going on the boodle. If someone’s got to be back in town in three hours, then sorry, you’re not riding with me because we might go to eight different parts of the island and spend the whole day doing it, and then stop at somebody’s house and spend two hours, and then continue our boodle.”
He turned down a side street. Two cars going in opposite directions had stopped side-by-side, blocking the road so the drivers could chat for a while. It didn’t faze him. “This is a typical Beaver Island thing — stop and talk on the road. And you have to wait until they’re finished,” he said. He waited patiently. A honked horn would be unheard of. Everyone here is on what’s called “Beaver Island Time,” he noted.
“If you show up for something a half-hour late, that’s Beaver Island time,” he said. “People do not drive fast here. If you’re going over 30 mph, that’s fast. It’s like, ‘Where’s the fire? What’s the rush?’ ”
His boodle took him to a pole barn on the edges of town, where his brother Ray was having a wedding reception. Ray lives in Chicago, but spent his childhood here, so the family had to have a Beaver Island version of his reception for their childhood friends.
“What I always told people is, if you’ve been to Mackinac Island and you like that type of environment, you’re not going to enjoy Beaver Island,” said Ray Cole, 63. “If you wanted to get away from that hustle and bustle of the fudge and T-shirt shops and kind of step back and slow down, that’s what Beaver Island is about. The atmosphere here is just different. From the effort to get here, to the possibility that sometimes in the winter you can be snowed in or shut down because of the weather for two or three days. There’s a lot of people that just can’t handle that possibility.”
“Most people describe it as you kind of step back in time a little bit,” his brother Paul added. “If you remember growing up everybody kind of knew each other; that’s typical of a small community, but it’s way even more so here. People are just more friendly here and it’s a slower pace. It’s very calm. If you’re walking to a bar or whatever, people are just going to start visiting with you.’”
Bowls of steamed shrimp shared space inside the pole barn with a small airplane and a large boat being stored there, marked off by photos of the couple dangling from a string of Christmas lights. Some guests talked about heading afterward to Mount Pisgah, a towering sand dune overlooking Lake Michigan. Lots of boodles end up there, with people climbing the steep dune to watch a thousand subtle gradations of sunset colors in peaceful, wave-splashing solitude.
“That’s the essence,” said Cynthia Johnson, who’d just arrived at the reception. She’s the editor of the Northern Islander, the island’s monthly magazine-style newspaper, as well as a DJ on the island’s only radio station. She’s also a proponent of boodling.
“Because there’s nobody here, you can drive anywhere you want, you can park where you want, you can do what you want, you can be naked if you want,” said the 63-year-old. “We’re isolated. There’s no one here. It’s pristine.”
Later that night, there would be a bonfire party deep in the woods. She might go there, she said. Might not, though.
“Remember the Beaver Island creed — this is Beaver Island Time. If I never see you again, that’s Beaver Island Time, because something else will come up. You’ll meet somebody else, or you’ll end up somewhere else, and no worries.”
A few hours later, Johnson’s truck was boodling merrily down miles of narrow dirt roads in the evening twilight. Her headlights cut a short path of visibility between two towering walls of dark trees.
For 20 years, the Beaver Island Music Festival was held in the middle of the deep woods, in the middle of the island, in the middle of a massive lake. Yet somehow it draws thousands of people every year who come here by ferry and camp in the woods, and dozens of bands from as far away as Detroit and Ann Arbor who perform for three days, along with food and beer vendors from all over the state who sell meals and drinks out of little wooden stands. The festival grew so big that the island’s ferry service had to add several routes just to accommodate it.
Then the pandemic hit, and organizers agonized before finally, reluctantly canceling this year’s event.
“Everybody’s too scared and upset, and I understand it,” said Dan Burton, who founded the festival 20 years ago in his backyard, which is acres of dense woods. “They’re like, ‘The island doesn’t have COVID; let’s not let COVID come here.’ ”
That night, just a few dozen family and friends gathered in a clearing, away from the mothballed wood stage that Burton built himself, taking turns playing acoustic guitars and singing songs by a small campfire as people talked and smoked and drank in a down-home version of the usual festival. Dogs chased each other through the woods, and kids ran around in country-fun happiness. It was like the old days, some said, back when the festival started simply because Burton invited a band to play in the woods so he could hear live music with his friends. That was back before his wife, Carol, took over and turned it into a festival as big as any on the mainland. “Tonight, we’re back to the roots,” Burton said.
He moved here 20 years ago, chasing a childhood memory of summers on the island with his best friend, whose family had a place here. Here, he and his wife and five kids live entirely off the grid, in a solar-paneled house that he built — not far from the stage that he built for the festival — where they grow, hunt and fish for their own food. “No power outage, self-governed, self-accountability,” said the former Marine. “I don’t rely on nobody.”
They own a boat shop, and he coaches teams for the island’s only school, which participates in the little-known Northern Lights league, consisting of teams from eight far-flung, remote northern schools, including a charter school from the Bay Mills Ojibwe reservation and student athletes from Mackinac Island. They fly to their games like pro teams and play double-headers while there for the weekend. And for as long as anyone can remember, the Mackinac Island teams and the Beaver Island teams have been the league’s biggest rivals.
Johnson sat by the fire and shot video of the musicians performing to post on her monthly newspaper’s website. “This is quintessential Beaver Island right here,” she said. “It’s the older generation and the kids, it’s safe, it’s free, it’s wonderful. And everybody’s mellow and nobody’s acting ignorant.”
Golden embers from the fire floated upward, briefly mixing with a million stars that hung low and bright in the moonless sky, a sky so clear the stars and planets don’t sparkle, but instead just shine. On a remote island with almost no outdoor lights, the darkness on Beaver Island is thick and deep, so much so that the entire island is being considered for designation as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary.
“The uniqueness here is the isolation, hands down,” Burton said. “But it’s a double-edged sword: It’s what keeps Beaver Island Beaver Island. But it’s also what hinders Beaver Island, ‘cause it’s so hard to get to. The uniqueness to me is the preserved small town, too. Look at the hardware store, the grocery store; you don’t see that anymore. Across America, everything is turning into a mirror image, and that will never be here, I don’t think.”
Next morning, the newsman was again making his rounds. He stopped at each of the island’s three churches to collect his video cameras, which he sets up every week on tripods so he can be several places at once. Later, he picks them up, takes them home, downloads the memory cards and posts each service on his site. “It is time consuming,” Moore said, laughing at the understatement. With that done, it was time for another boodle. But first, he took a picture.
“I went in there and took care of this, and I came out here and there was a spider on my mirror,” he said, outside the last of the three churches. “That’s the first thing I took a picture of this morning. It’s the simple things in life that make things really interesting on Beaver Island.”
He pointed to innumerable sights as his car crawled through the countryside. Here’s where a guy grew two kinds of corn. Here’s where someone planted grapes to make wine. Over there, a field of oats. Across the water, at the base of the pine trees, a beaver dam. All along the way were swarms of butterflies, rising like clouds from wildflower fields. He snapped photos of it all. And all of it was beautiful. Today’s news today.
He stopped his Beaver Island car by his favorite spot near the bay for a moment.
“What do you hear?” he asked once again. The wind and the waves and the silent void from which they arose answered for him. “That’s why I live on Beaver Island. I can find this all over the island. You can go and find someplace very quickly, very easily, where the only sounds you hear are the sounds of nature, whether it’s the waves, or it’s the wind blowing in the trees, or the birds. That’s the part of Beaver Island that brought me to love this place. It’s because of all those wonderful things.”
John Carlisle writes about people and places in Michigan. His stories can be found at freep.com/carlisle. Contact him: [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @_johncarlisle, Facebook at johncarlisle.freep or on Instagram at johncarlislefreep.