Living On Michigan’s Mackinac Island

From May 2017 until August of 2017, I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to live on my favorite island for 3 months. Being a Georgia resident, how did I even get the option to do this? For starters, my uncle and godfather, who runs the island, suggested that I try applying to work there. We both wanted my chances to be fair, so we weren’t very obvious about the fact that he was related to me. After a phone interview, I was offered the job and allowed to live in a house with other workers. Little would I know that this would be a life changing experience for me.

During this time, I was facing my rock bottom. I had just gotten kicked out of college and had no job. Each day was becoming a blur, as I had no responsibility or drive to do anything due to my mental health. However, I figured getting out of my shell and different scenery would be a great change for me. My family and I would visit my aunt and uncle on the island when I was growing up, so I formed this indescribable attachment to that island.

Moving to the Island

Crossing Lake Huron by ferry boat, looking at Mackinac Bridge in the distance.

I left for a grueling fourteen hour road trip at the end of April 2017 so that I could move in and attend the orientation. Unfortunately, as I was not accustomed to how Michigan is, all of my clothes were made for spring. When I arrived in Cheboygan late at night and saw clumps of snow on the ground, I quickly realized I was in for a struggle. With only a hoodie and jeans, I boarded the ferry the next morning with my parents, a single suitcase, backpack, ukulele and camera bag to move into my temporary home.

When I walked into my room, I was shell shocked. It was nothing that I had anticipated. I had never lived in the same bedroom as anyone else, even when I was living in my freshman dorm. The front door to the room opened to a kitchen, complete with dining table. Walking through the curtain covered doorway to the left, there was a large room with four beds lined up next to each other. My heart sank immediately. I was confused, scared, and incredibly anxious at the sight. However, I hadn’t just traveled fourteen hours just to turn back around. I walked past the beds and into the small, shared bathroom, hoping to find some solace. Instead, I was met with dirt and grunge. Desperately trying to hide my disgust, my aunt (who had joined us) smiled at me and reminded me of the house I was currently standing in.

Me sitting on a bike in front of Mission House, where I lived for three months while working on Mackinac Island.

We were living in the Mission House, a historic landmark that had been built in 1825 for the purpose of boarding and teaching Native American children. It was very old and hadn’t really been updated too much and that I had to accept that it wasn’t going to be what I was used to. Quietly, I picked the bed closest to the window against the wall, grabbed a nightstand from the corner of the room, and made it as much of a home as I possibly could. As for making it homey, all I brought were some cheap gray sheets that I found as Walmart a week prior to moving in, a teddy bear, a pillow from home and a Star Wars throw blanket since I didn’t want to lug a comforter fourteen hours away. On the nightstand, I placed an old lamp I found in the room and a small Polaroid photo album.

My corner of the room.

It was so cold for so long. It was constantly cloudy and foggy. I started to doubt if I had made the right decision. Then, my first roommate moved in. I met her at the orientation and we ironically had been randomly made roommates prior to us meeting. At first, it was awkward. She was very quiet and kept to herself. She picked a bed at the opposite side of the room, far away from me. For the first week, we rarely spoke except to ask questions about living conditions and cleaning. To my surprise, after a considerable amount of time, we actually started bonding and became attached at the hip. It’s almost as though she was put into my life because I was debating on going home out of fear. She calmed all of my nerves and made working a lot easier and a lot more fun.

Starting to Work

A lot of coworkers hanging out in their Eno hammocks at our house we lived in.

On top of meeting a lot of interesting people and eventually getting two more roommates, work was actually fun. It wasn’t just a job, it was actually something I looked forward to. It was my first full time job that I had ever had. My roommates and I got up at 9:00 am every day together, would tell jokes and talk as we prepared for the day and walked to our stations together. One of the reasons that working was so fun was because we never did the same thing every single day.

There were several different places we had to work and most had different responsibilities. For starters, everyone was giving a little gold key. This key would unlock a door at the employee building for us to go and get our till for the day. These keys also unlocked the stations we worked at. After opening the door to the employee building, our shift leader would hand our till to us and we would have about fifteen minutes to make sure we had the correct amount of money in our tills. Of course, we had to count by hand so it would take quite some time. After collecting our till, we would go to our stations.

One responsibility was the ticket booths to sell guests tickets to enter the fort located on the island, appropriately called Fort Mackinac. Fort Mackinac was garrisoned from the late 18th century to the late 19th century by British and American soldiers. The fort harbors loads of history, a gorgeous restaurant called the Tea Room and a gift shop. The fort also contained reenactors that portrayed soldiers and women of the time period. For my coworkers and myself, we had several jobs to uphold within the fort. Like mentioned, ticket booths are extremely important. There were two ticket booths: one at the base of the fort and one at the top. The fort was placed on a large hill, so the state park wanted to accommodate for people either below that hill or on top of it. We also were placed inside of the fort to work in the gift shop.

One of the many views from the Tea Room.

Outside of the fort, we had three other places we could work. One of those places was the state park visitor’s center. It was a gift shop as well as a general place for information. We weren’t given any sort of cheat sheets to look at for information except a large map, so gathering knowledge of the island took time and practice. The visitor’s center was a personal favorite for me to work at because I became very close friends with the manager at that station. The other place we could work at outside of the fort was a kiosk across the street from the visitor’s center. However, the only people who could work in the kiosk were seasoned workers who had been there for several years. The kiosk served as a place to sell tickets if it was a busy day and sell maps. The last place we could work was the art museum.

The art museum that we could work at.

The art museum was generally known as the easiest place to work at. Tickets to the fort included additional entry to the art museum, which meant that rarely anyone paid to enter so you wouldn’t really have any money to count at the end of the day. Barely anyone would even go to it so you were typically alone to read or draw. If you worked at the art museum, you pretty much knew you were going to have a great day.

Having six different places to work made each day interesting. Our supervisor, who gave us our tills and made the schedules, was the one to pick who would work where. We would get a printed sheet every two weeks of where everyone would work. I would personally go through and highlight my name and where I was working and eventually started highlight when my friends would work with me.

The Pros

Pertaining to work, there were a lot of pros. Everyone treated each other with respect and everyone would help out one another as needed. Our lunch breaks proved that teamwork. If you worked at the ticket booths, which of course you did alone, someone working in the gift shop within the fort would come to take over the ticket booth so you could have a lunch break for half an hour. Since there were always two to three people working at the gift shop at all times, they would organize their lunch breaks between themselves and cover each other.

If you were working outside of the fort, people in the visitor center were responsible for going to the kiosk and art museum to take over and allow those people to take their breaks, as people in the art museum and kiosk worked alone. The visitor center, much like the gift shop, always had three to four people working at a time so lunch breaks were organized between them. It was a great system, and each station had phones where you could call your coworkers for either questions or announcements. While many stations were independent, there was still a large amount of teamwork needed to be done.

A sign on Mackinac Island located near to the house I lived in.

While it was a full time job, each person got one or two days off a week. If you were lucky, you got both off days back to back. On those off days, you could really accomplish a lot. Personally, I would catch up on laundry, cook a good meal at home, visit my friends at work, or explore the island. The island was a little over eight miles around, and I completed several bike rides around the island, each ride lasting under an hour. There’s something very important that I have forgotten to mention: Mackinac Island has no vehicles. The only way to get around was by walking, biking, or by horse. The only vehicles the island had was a single police car and a single ambulance. Bikes were taken very seriously, and you even had to go to the police station to purchase a tag for your bike that would last a year.

The house we stayed at had a huge front yard and some picnic tables. On sunny days, I would sit outside with the head of housing to play ukulele. I’d walked to my favorite coffee shop called Lucky Bean, where I eventually became a well known regular. I would visit my aunt and uncle who lived in a house right behind the fort and spend time with them. I would enjoy the fresh air and tranquility of the island. It was almost like a dream.

Arch Rock, a famous landmark on Mackinac Island.

The pay was really good, but I unfortunately spent most of my pay on lunch at a nearby pizza shop. For living in Mission House, we also had to pay rent. This rent was automatically subtracted from our paychecks so we never had to consciously worry about paying it. Asking for time off was fairly easy and most workers were very open to picking up extra shifts. It was also fun to take the ferry back to the mainland with friends to make a Walmart run in Cheboygan.

The Cons

While there weren’t many cons, there were still cons. Coworkers would inadvertently destroy your entire week for asking ahead of time for time off. For example, I had to work eleven days straight and it was a nightmare just because someone wanted to have a few days off to get wasted with some friends that didn’t work for the state park.

While coworkers were typically respectful and easy to work with, there was always one that just wasn’t on that same page. That bad apple for that season was unfortunately my roommate, who eventually was moved out of my room for causing so many issues. While that wasn’t something my job could control, it was still an unfortunate thing to deal with.

Fort Holmes, the highest point on the island.

The guests were sometimes too much to handle. Some didn’t really understand that the island ran on a very tight schedule. The state park had to abide by the time that the ferries would start to bring in guests and close shortly before the last ferry of the day left. This ensured guests not missing their chance to go home and ensured that everyone got off on the right time. For example, if someone was working in the ticket booth, it would be really bad for everyone if they sold a ticket to a desperate guest five to ten minutes after we were closed. This would force the reenactors to stay much later, the gift shop to stay open later, and the park rangers to stay to ensure everything was perfect for the next day. Everything worked like a giant wheel, and one mistake could mess it up for a lot of other people.

Sometimes, it was difficult to live on the island. There was a grocery store on the island, where everything was drastically overpriced to account for the amount of money spent on transferring food to the island. In late June to early July, the island became really packed with people and we would actually find random strangers trying to come into Mission House because they thought it was for the public, despite there being a sign on the doors stating otherwise.

The Experiences

Like I said, I made some great friends on the island that happened to be my roommates and coworkers. We would go hiking, biking, have dinners at nice restaurants, watch the beavers build their dam by our house, smell the lilacs when they were in bloom, and listen to the freighters while trying to translate their horn sounds. There would also be boyscouts and girlscouts that would stay on the island for a week at a time and they would hold dinners for the state park workers to join in on. The Grand Hotel located on the island also held public dances, which everyone in Mission House would attend together. The only catch was that you had to wear formal attire in order to enter, which was difficult for a Georgian like me who had packed so little.

My roommates and I at the Grand Hotel for dance night.

The experiences I had from the island are deeply important to me, as they impacted me to my very core, and is one of the things I love talking about since this is obviously the longest blog post I’ve created yet. Working for Mackinac State Historic Park is something I would recommend to anyone and everyone. It is a once in a lifetime experience and is such a different way of living life. No matter where you live, as long as you’re willing to literally go the distance, you can work on this beautiful island. The requirement for the particular position I held can be found on the state parks website, along with a list of requirements to work there.

I hope that you, my dear reader, can understand what love I hold for this island and everything I experienced there, good and bad. I hope that this encourages you to step outside of your comfort zone to experience something that could be life changing. You never know what will impact your life forever. For me, it was Mackinac Island.

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