The first island I ever visited was Mackinac Island in Lake Huron. Sadly, I was only three and have no memory of the visit. But through the years, my parents reminisced often about our time on Mackinac. Sometimes I wonder how a girl born in a small town in Central Illinois, surrounded by only corn and soybean fields, became infatuated with islands. Perhaps hearing about this quiet island, with no cars, only the sound of the wind in the trees and the water slapping the rocky shore, sparked my life-long fascination for islands and island culture.
Once a “Prairie Girl”; I’m now definitely an “Island Girl.” Our summers are spent on Grenell Island, but the off-season is spent “island hopping.” When we’re home in Dunedin, I get my daily “island fix” on Honeymoon Island. I love watching shorebirds and dolphins as I walk along the shore with my feet in the sand. Florida also provides the perfect jumping off place to visit Caribbean Islands. So far this year we’ve visited more than a dozen Caribbean Islands.
Besides the Caribbean, we’ve visited lots of exotic island chains: Galapagos, Azores, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, French Polynesia (Tahiti, Mo’rea and Bora Bora), Channel Islands, Canary Islands and Hawaii to name a few.
Whenever we get the chance, we love exploring small islands off the coast of other countries. One of my favorites was Easdale, one of the Slate Islands, off the west coast of Scotland. Easdale is only a stone’s throw from the mainland. This tiny Grenell-sized island once had as many as seven slate quarries with 500 workers toiling away. The present-day population has dwindled to 60 permanent residents. It is known as an artists’ colony and the population swells in the summertime as it has many holiday cottages.
But the most unusual island we’ve ever visited was a hand-made floating island, on Lake Titicaca, in Peru. The Uros people live on islands made of bundles of dried Tortora reeds, which grow in the lake. They layer the bundles until they are about two feet thick, then anchor their island to the bottom of the lake, with ropes attached to sticks. Kind of freaky when a wake from a passing boat, rocks the island and their reed hut. Because the bottom layer is always rotting away, they must add a new layer to the top of their island about every three months. We were told the islands last for about 30 years.
Islanders are as fascinating as the islands they inhabit. I love meeting islanders and comparing island life. So far this year, we’ve met three island dwellers from other parts of the world. First was a young woman, Elizabeth or “Little Bit”, who grew up in North Carolina, but had just moved to St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. She loved the ocean and the beauty of St. Thomas, but the shortage of fresh water in the summer and the expense of everything wore on her.
We also met a woman, who grew up on Prince Edward Island. She smiled as she reminisced about growing up on the island, but her smile faded when she described how things changed after the construction of the Confederation Bridge, in 1997. The 8-mile bridge spans the Northumberland Strait and connects Prince Edward Island with New Brunswick. This “fixed link”, with the mainland world, forever altered the psyche of the island, making islanders feel less like islanders and more like an extension of the mainland world.
Lastly, we met a couple from Whidbey Island, in Washington State. Whidbey is 55 miles long and supports a community of 58,000 residents, as well as a Naval Air Station. There is a bridge on the north end of the island that connects them with the mainland, but as they live on the south end of the island, they take a ferry to and from the mainland. While there are so many things different from Grenell, starting with size and the fact that they have cars; talk about septic systems, power outages and weather-related issues resonated with us.
Whether the islands are large or small, in the tropics or in more temperate regions, there seem to be similar pros and cons.
1. NATURAL BEAUTY: Islands are rife with natural beauty and quasi-magical experiences: sunrises, sunsets, wildlife, flora, the soothing sounds of the wind in the pines (or palms) and the water lapping against the shore.
2. RELAXING: Surrounded by water, and often times cut off from the hustle-bustle of the mainland world, Island Life can be relaxing. We’ve all heard the expression, “Island Time.” Islands, whether big or small, tropical or temperate seem to be a place where you can relax, unplug and slow down.
3. STRONG COMMUNITIES: When you live on an island, you are surrounded not only by water, but by the same group of people, usually people who love island life as much as you do. This doesn’t mean that everyone always gets along with everyone else, but on the whole, small islands in particular tend to have strong communities, where everyone is willing to help each other out…despite petty disagreements.
4. EASY TO GET AROUND: Because they are so small, getting from point A to point B is much easier. Many small islands have no cars, so if you are getting together with friends you might walk or boat to their place.
5. MORE CREATIVE: I’ve always said, that I’m more inspired to write when I’m on Grenell. It’s not just me. Writers, artists, photographers and other artistic types love the solitude, and inspiring surroundings of island life.
1. EXPENSE: Day-to-day living can be much more expensive on an island. Marine gas is more expensive than the gas station down the street. We no longer have a grocery store on Grenell, but island-based stores tend to be more expensive and not as well stocked. Any sort of service you require on an island, from piano tuner to appliance repair, will cost more because of the added travel required. Likewise, anything you build on an island will cost more.
2. LIMITED ACCESS TO MEDICAL CARE: Here in Dunedin, emergency medical care is minutes away. On Grenell, there is the added barrier of getting off the island first, then to the mainland, then to a hospital. If it’s a serious medical emergency, and minutes matter, this added step could make the difference between survival and death.
3. INFRASTRUCTURE RELIABILITY: Last year we had a power outage that would have been repaired in a few hours, if we had been on the mainland. While still a factor, I’ve seen infrastructure reliability (electricity, phone, Internet) improve dramatically in the last few decades, but still not as reliable as they are on the mainland.
4. STRANDED BY WEATHER CONDITIONS: High wind and waves can make it impossible to either get off the island, or return to the island. Mother Nature has more of an impact on our day-to-day plans than she does if we lived on the mainland.
For us, the PROs more than outweigh the CONs. In fact, the CONs somehow seem to make island life all that more adventurous and challenging. This Island Girl continues to be infatuated with island life, but I’m always counting the days until I can return to my favorite island, Grenell.
By Lynn E. McElfresh, Grenell Island, NY
Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to “TI Life,” writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. You can see Lynn’s 80+ articles here (Yes we celebrated her number 80 in July, 2015.) Lynn helps us move pianos, fix the plumbing and often finds books and people to review…
In this article Lynn helps to build bridges… something she seems to do naturally, as she brings us so much history and interesting pieces about our Thousand Islands.