Drummond Island is a destination, rather than a place people happen to drive by. To get to Drummond you have to want to come here. And when you arrive you’ll be glad you did.
Envision yourself surrounded by woods of spruce, pine, cedar, fir… You are now in the Northwoods on the far eastern end of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, USA. Warblers, chickadees and ravens call out, the large woodpecker drums his percussive rap. Ferns, mushrooms and wild leeks carpet the forest floor. In the distance you hear waves splashing against a rocky shoreline. As you walk towards the water the trees begin to thin and wild flowers add color to the rocky terrain. You catch the smell of mint just after your foot treads upon calamint, crushing its leaves.
It’s a perfect day, you think to yourself, but then you’ve been told that it’s like this more often than not. Underfoot are rocks of all colors, some like a crazy-quilt all mashed together. When you look up you realize you are on the edge of a very large lake—one of the largest in the world. A lake so large you can not see the other side. It is both noisy and quiet.
Ever since I was 18, it had been my dream to live as close to the land and as self-sufficiently as possible. When people ask what brought me to Drummond I tell them that it was my husband. Half-jokingly, but with all honesty, I tell them, “I lived in Baltimore, when we met. When he told me that he lived in the Upper Peninsula I said, ‘That’s nice.’ When he said that he lived on Drummond Island I replied, ‘Okay, I’m not sure where that is but it sounds good.’ When he continued by telling me that he lived off the grid on a smaller private island, I said, ‘Yes I’ll marry you!’”
Depending upon who you ask and when you ask, you’ll get different numbers. Drummond is a small community of about 900 year-round residents. During the summer the number increases when our “snowbirds” migrate back north from spending the winter in warmer climates. From year-to-year the population is fairly steady.
3. What is abundant and what is scarce on Drummond Island?
When I tell people that I live off the grid, they ask me if I have a garden, assuming that I would be growing all of my food. I shake my head, “Yeah, but it’s only a small garden, in containers. We have this much soil.” I hold my fingers only a couple of inches apart from each other. On Drummond, dolomite (limestone bedrock) is abundant and soil is scarce. So those of us who scratch out a garden, cherish any soil we have.
Cell phone signals are also scarce unless you are parked in the church parking lot at the end of our small airport or at the ferry dock. Most of the cell companies deny that there is service available in our area. My husband installed a booster antenna at our house which allows us to use our cell phones and get the internet via a cellular signal.
Drummond is the second largest inhabited freshwater island in North America; second to Canada’s Manitoulin Island. During the Revolutionary war there was a military fort on Drummond, which was occupied by the British and later taken over by the Americans. Had things happened differently around 1820 when the international border between Canada and the US was being established, Drummond could have been Canadian. The border was to follow the natural water flow of St. Mary’s River. There is a tale that with a barrel of rum the Americans got the Canadians drunk and convinced them that the water coming down the river flowed to the north and east of Drummond, not to the west as it actually does. Thus Drummond Island became American property.
5. What are some of the practical challenges of living on Drummond Island?
Life on Drummond often revolves around ferry time. We are fortunate that our ferry runs hourly, year round with the exception of the wee hours of the morning. And don’t worry, the ferry will be waiting at the dock when our ambulance needs to go to the mainland. People plan their day’s schedule by the ferry. “I gotta catch the 3:10” means that they aren’t available to do something after 2:45 because that is when they will be heading for the ferry. “I’ll be on the 11:40” means they will be back on the island at noon and thus available to have lunch with you.
One of the biggest practical challenges of living on Drummond Island is the limited number of jobs. Some people work on the mainland and many who live here are retired. Tourism is a large part of our economy, so many of the jobs are seasonal. Many self-employed individuals, like myself, are dependent upon work via computer or phone and periodically have to travel. Or a person might have more than one type of job to make ends meet.
Another of the challenges of living on a small island is that there are no secrets. Being a small community, everyone knows everything. Curious what is going on? Just ask. So it’s a balancing act—if you don’t want everyone knowing your business, you have to be very careful about what you say.
6. Is there a stereotype about Drummond Island you’d like to correct?
People often think that our winters are harsh and that there is nothing to do. In actuality it is the opposite—winters are pleasant with temperatures averaging at 20F (-6C) and about 89″ of snow each year. A lot of places south of us have harsher and colder winters.
Many people enjoy snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing and even winter camping on Drummond. Or sitting by the fire with a hot mug of cocoa while watching the snow fall. When I moved here I fell in love with winter when I saw the artistry that the ice and snow created along the shore. Winter is beautiful here, so beautiful that I published a photography coffee table book “Art of Winter”.
7. What do you think makes island communities, like yours, unique?
Many islands, including ours, have a saying “I’m on Island Time” or “Time stops when you get off the ferry.” Both of these apply to Drummond. Tourists love visiting because it is so easy to leave the “real” world behind and unplug.
Sometimes I even forget that there are other communities on the other side of the ferry. Although a number of people work off the island, many folks don’t leave the island for weeks or even months. Drummond has all the basics. Every few months I travel to teach classes or exhibit in art shows—if it weren’t for those occasions there wouldn’t be much reason for me to leave.
Drummond is wonderfully safe, with little to no crime. We don’t have a police force because we have very little need for it—if a person did something, it is likely that someone will know what they did. Most of us don’t lock the doors to our homes and often leave the keys in the car. Were a car to be taken, it’s because a friend needed to borrow it. Or a quick call to the ferry would catch the perpetrator before they had a chance to leave the island.
8. How are tourists generally seen by locals?
We love our tourists and our summer residents. Tourism is a large part of our economy, so we do what we can to make visitors feel welcome. After they have come once, they usually come back.
9. What is the best way to get here?
You can arrive by water, air or snowmobile, yes snowmobile. The easiest way is to take the ferry from DeTour Village. The ferry runs year round and almost 24 hours a day. It has an icebreaker bow so it can break up any ice in the river.
There are a few public marinas at which boaters and sailors can arrive. Drummond also has an airport that accommodates small aircraft. During the winter, when the ice is frozen between Drummond and St. Joseph Island, Ontario, there is an ice bridge. It is lined with evergreen trees so snowmobilers can travel back and forth.
10. What should visitors know (or read) before setting out for the Drummond Island area.
It’s easy to arrive as a stranger and leave as a friend. The Drummond Island Tourism Association website has a lot of information about the island and different businesses here. Once you get here, for those who want to try their hand at being a local, wave at the cars as they pass by. Regardless of whether or not we know the person, we give a friendly little wave to say “Hi” or “Have a good day.”
And a little bit about Julie:
People can find out more about me on my website: my photography, writing, blogs, classes, and therapy work. Copies of my coffee table photo book can also be ordered through my website, local bookstore or Amazon.