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Neebish Island community braces for winter isolation

Taylor Wizner


Last winter freezing temperatures hit some people harder than others. On Neebish Island, 20 miles south of Sault Ste. Marie, thick ice formed on the St. Mary’s River.

When the U.S. Coast Guard cut the ice, it flowed down the river and blocked the ferry channel. Island residents were stranded at home for almost a month. They call this 'ice cutting season,' and they know they could be stuck at some point during each winter.

About 70 people live on the island year-round. There is no store and no gas station. When the ferry stops working, residents have to get creative. Bob Schallip keeps a bunch of tools and equipment in his workshop.

He says neighbors come by when they need something; if a septic tank goes out, he’s got the plumbing fixtures, if someone needs threaded bolts or nuts, he’s got dozens.

This is the way of the island. When the ferry isn’t running, one person brings people across the ice in a sleigh for doctors appointments. There’s a woman who keeps extra over-the-counter medication for children. There's a man who plows many of the island roads for free. 

Bob Schallip and his wife have lived on the island for about 30 years.

"When we first moved herem I went to all the old ones, and I asked, 'How do I not die?" Schallip says. "I learned about the ice. Ice is a big part of life."  

This year Schallip says the ice bridge is about two feet thick and safe to travel on. 

But that bridge could go away if the Coast Guard cuts the ice to make a channel for large ships.

When that happens, it also ruins the ice bridges residents walk and snowmobile across.

Credit Taylor Wizner
Bob and Mary Schallip at their Neebish Island home. They have lived on the island for almost 30 years.

Dorothy Tyner lives down the road from Bob. She is 86 years old and is also a year-round resident. Tyner prepares for ice breaking season by stocking up on toilet paper and canning different foods, but she’s currently out of her favorite meat.

"Beaver is the best mode of eating," Tyner says. "But I’ll tell you now, if I could have that in a jar, I’d be one happy person."

She also has to think about stocking up on medicine when she’s unable to get into town. 

"If you’re out of something like medicine, then shame on me for not thinking ahead of time," Tyner says. "So I can’t blame that on anybody else."

But she says island residents usually have what they need. Part of their mentality is to always have extra, because islanders know a day will come when they’ll need it.

Tyner's lived on the island for most of her life. Her husband died ten years ago, but she has her dogs and son for company. He lives next door, close enough to plow her driveway each day. 

Still, she says it’s not always easy to be so far removed during the snow-filled months.

"Cabin fever, I think I had it a couple days ago," Tyner says. "I was just ornery. And I try to say I’m not an ornery person, but I wan’t real agreeable for a while."

Credit Taylor Wizner
The view of Neebish Island from the ferry dock.

Tomorrow, the Coast Guard will begin it’s ice cutting operation in the St. Mary’s River. They say it won’t affect the ferry channel this time, but Neebish residents know you can’t predict the weather and things could change. 

In the meantime, the islanders will have the supplies they need and will be all set either way.

Correction: A previous version of this story said Bob and Mary Schallip have lived on Neebish Island for almost 20 years. They've been there for almost 30 years.

Taylor Wizner covers heath, tourism and other news for Interlochen Public Radio.