I sat in the bow of an old, slightly rusty looking aluminum fishing boat, perched precariously on the edge of the seat so that I didn’t fall through the rotting wooden bench. A green Folgers coffee can sat on the bottom of the boat between my feet full of rich black dirt, like someone put Oreos through a food processor. In one hand I held a ratty old black fishing pole, the reel barely attached by the remains of a few pieces of duct tape. The line curled and knotted around itself from the end of the pole to the small, dull-silver hook that I held in my other hand. I stared at the coffee can that sat between my Tevas, watching a slimy, squirmy pink dot emerge and grow into a fat, writhing night crawler.
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“I’m not baiting that hook for you, honey. You’re ten years old. If I was your daddy, there’s no way I would be letting you fish if you can’t put your own worm on. Somebody’s got to whip some independence into you. ” My grandma sat hunched over the outboard motor in an oversize, tattered straw hat, a stained purple t-shirt that was at least two sizes too big, and black leggings speckled with white paint. Her feet, clad in purple plastic Birkenstocks, were propped on the bench in front of her as she tried to keep her body as far from the water as possible. She was obviously uncomfortable on the water, although she lived alone in a gorgeous house on an inland lake, about two miles from the island’s coastline.
“But I’ve never done it before. I don’t even know how!” I whined as I stared at the slimy pink worm that had decided to attempt to submerge itself in dirt again. Apparently it was entirely unacceptable for a ten year old to ask to have their hook baited. She just shrugged her shoulders, then turned her face up to the sun, eyes closed, determined to enjoy this excursion somehow, even if it was simply by pretending she was somewhere else. I looked back down at the coffee can, then at the hook in my hand. I balanced the fishing pole between my knees and reached into the Oreo crumbs, trying to pretend that I was looking for a gummy worm, rather than the writhing, slimy creature I was scooping out of the moist, cool dirt.
About 30 miles north of Charlevoix, Michigan, there is an island that is thirteen miles long and six miles wide. It is the largest island in the Great Lakes, and is home to about 500 year round residents. In the summers the population skyrockets with the many college kids, tourists, and so called ‘summer people’ that flock to the island to work, enjoys the great outdoors, or enjoy the small town atmosphere of the island. My grandma is one of those 500 year round residents, and has been for the last 30 years. I fall under the categories of both ‘summer people’ and college kids. My family, specifically my mother and I, had been going up to the island for at least a month every summer since I was born.
“I can’t believe you know how to fish!” I sat on the back tanning deck of my grandma’s pontoon boat in a threadbare grey sports bra and pink lace boy shorts, next to a cottage cheese container full of night crawlers and a dirty grey tackle box, dangling my legs over the edge of the boat. Much to Chris’ amazement, I had just rigged my own line with a hook and a weight. I even showed him how I copied my grandpa and used a piece of old rusty wire to keep enough distance between the weight and the bait I was using before I dropped my line into the water.
“It’s really not that big of a deal,” I said, brushing off his incredulity. After all, he was just a boy. Sitting on the boat seat at the other end of the pontoon boat, in dirty ripped jeans, scuffed brown cowboy boots and a blue cutoff t-shirt from a long forgotten basketball tournament, playing with the oversize fishing hooks on his distressed camouflage Mossy Oak baseball cap, he really did look like a little kid. He was staring at me in awe, and all of a sudden I felt like I had been too forward, too self sufficient. After all, it was only his first trip to the island. I probably should’ve warned him before I stripped off my t-shirt and shorts and jumped into the lake to pull the weeds out of the fussy new Honda outboard.
I was greeted with the same look of awe when I arrived at Heavenly View, one of the island’s older, more famous rental cottages. I pulled up in my filthy black suburban, playing Dropkick Murphys a little too loud, with two baseball gloves, a bag of marshmallows and a couple bars of chocolate.
“How did you find this place by yourself? It’s like, in the middle of nowhere!” Chris obviously wasn’t used to the island yet. I opened the driver door with a cacophony of squeaks and groans.
“I pass it every morning on the way to work, dear.” I answered with a somewhat patronizing tone. I walked past the door Chris held open for me, around the front of the cottage to the picnic table and fire pit that sat about 50 yards from the front porch. I set down the food and gloves before I turned to make sure that Chris was still following me.
“Hey! Look at that big old water snake over there! Catch it!” Chris shouted excitedly, pointing to what looked like a brownish stick lying on the ground a few feet away from me.
“Are you trying to kill me? I don’t catch snakes!” I blustered, all the while inching closer and closer to the stick, which now had eyes and a gorgeous diamond pattern down its back. I stretched my arm out as I got even closer, ready to grab the snake just behind its neck.
There are families, known as clans on the island, which have been central to the island’s economy and society since the 1800’s. Most of the land on the island once belonged to one of these families, and nearly every business or utility is owned by one of the clans. For example, the McDonoughs own at least five of the rental properties around the island, not to mention countless private homes, as well as the only bank, the only grocery store, one of three delis, and the ferry service. The kids of these families grow up on the island, and move off the island for college or to work for a while, but inevitably come back. They tend to only associate with people from their same clan, but every once in a while someone branches out.
“You really like the island that much? You’ve got to be the craziest girl I’ve ever met! You don’t even have anyone down on the south end with you. What do you even do?” We sat on the edge of the dock, dangling our feet over the edge, staring out at the harbor. Barry was in his boxers, leaning back on his elbows so he could see my face through the surrounding gloom. At this angle, the moonlight shining through the sailboat masts hit a sliver of his face, making the contrast between his short, spiky black hair and tan Irish skin especially sharp. In the dark, the beginnings of his beer belly were nearly invisible. I curled up into his huge white sweatshirt that I was wearing over my mismatched bikini, trying to raise both my courage levels and my body temperature.
“I love it. I love living by myself, and there’s plenty to do down on Lake Genes! You know I have kayaks and a Sunfish and a canoe and a pontoon boat. Plus my grandma works me into the ground like every day! I swear those gardens are going to kill me. And I’ve been running to the lighthouse.” I rattled off the laundry list of activities that kept me busy when I wasn’t bumming around town with the eldest McDonough college kid.
“Yet you’ve never been swimming in the harbor. I find that extremely hard to believe and extremely sad.” Barry was teasing me, trying to guilt trip me into submerging my body in 50 degree water when the air temperature couldn’t be warmer than about 55 degrees.
‘Can’t you go first? I don’t even know how to get out!” I was whining again, and as Barry started to respond with another smart remark, I flashed back to a fishing trip on the same island with my grandma when I was ten. How she had succeeded, after a few moments of whiny uncertainty, in making me a minutely more independent person. How she had left me completely to my own devices all summer, except for suppers, and never asked me where I had been or what time I got home last night.
“Didn’t you just tell me you were independent, about 20 minutes ago when you were failing miserably at tying that bathing suit?” Barry asked, his voice laced with sarcasm. He started moving, theatrically getting up, raising himself off one elbow at a time, pausing for effect. Before he had a chance to laboriously pull himself up on a dock piling, I pushed the sweatshirt hood back and stuck my tongue out. I barely heard what he was saying, as I jumped up, threw the sweatshirt on his lap and dove smoothly off the dock into the icy harbor water. Grandma would’ve been so proud.
The island is one of my favorite places in the world. We’ve been going up for years, and it never ceases to amaze me. We used to camp in a pop up trailer on an inland lake, which my parents later built a cottage on, 7 lots of unadulterated woods. We’ve spent so much time up there, hiking along the beach, biking on the dirt roads through the woods, driving around the island in the middle of the night, skinny dipping in Lake Michigan. The trip we took over St. Patrick’s Day Weekend was really relaxing, and really nice. I love just walking around, running to the beach, reading on the futon in our living room. I can’t wait to go back for the the summer!
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