BEAVER ISLAND, Mich. » Muggs Bass doesn’t own a computer. She’s pretty much dead set against e-mail. Anyone who calls her home on Michigan’s remote Beaver Island should be prepared for a busy signal, if she’s on her land-line phone. She has no cell.
"When you don’t have it, you don’t miss it. That’s what I say," says the spunky 70-year-old grandmother, who’s as comfortable telling jokes at the local pub as she is attending Mass each morning.
Technology isn’t really her thing. So, it’s a small miracle when Bass drives, once a month, to her island’s rural health center to sit down in front of a wide-screen television. There, she and a handful of other islanders connect by video conference with a similar group in Charlevoix, Mich., a two-hour ferry ride away.
They chat. They laugh. They cry together.
All of them have, or have had, cancer, Bass included. Hers started with a lump in her breast and has since metastasized to her bones, making her cancer treatable, but incurable, her doctors tell her.
Her own grandmother died of the same disease and went off the island for occasional treatments, as Bass does every few weeks. But that grandmother could hardly have imagined a day when islanders talked openly about their cancer, face-to-face with people in a support group miles away.
It’s just one of many ways technology is making this rugged place less remote than it once was and, some would say, more livable for more people.
Not that the change has come quickly, or that technology always works perfectly.
That’s just how it is on an island where a popular bumper sticker reads "Slow Down! This Ain’t The Mainland." It’s aimed at anyone who’s in too big a hurry, including lead-footed tourists who kick up dust on the many dirt roads or who panic when cell phone service drops.
That’s life on wired — or at least, semi-wired — Beaver Island, where the year-round population is about 650, give or take a few dozen.
So, where is Beaver Island, anyway?
Some Michiganders would show you by holding up their right hands, palms up, and pointing just above the tip of their ring fingers — in other words, just off the far northwest tip of the state’s lower peninsula. But that’s if even THEY know where it is.
Beaver Island — much of its 54 square miles covered in lush hardwood forests, sand dunes or pristine inland lakes — is not well known. That’s partly because it is difficult to get to, especially in winter, when small planes are usually the only option, weather permitting.
So when high-speed Internet service became available to most of the island last spring, this was more than just a convenience. For many, it was a godsend — even if having the service simply meant being able to shop online for just about anything, to play an online game or to watch a newly released movie. For others, it meant being able to stay on the island longer because they had a more reliable connection to do work.
|ON THE NET:
» Beaver Island site and webcams: www.beaverisland.org
Either way, the outside world was even more readily available, at least virtually.
Schoolchildren on the island were ahead of this curve: The main public school knew how valuable it would be for them to be technologically savvy, especially when students headed to college. So students take language and advanced-placement classes — even college courses — online.
Today’s state-of-the-art Beaver Island school is quite different from the one Muggs Bass attended. For her, books were the only real window to the mainland, especially in elementary school.
Like many who settled on Beaver Island, her great-grandparents and a grandmother had come from Ireland, to farm, fish and find a better life. Born Mary Margaret but called "Muggs" as long as she can remember, Bass went to a small school across the field from the family farmhouse.
Other than a trip to the doctor when she was a young child, she didn’t go to the mainland of Michigan — "across," as the islanders like to say — until she visited an aunt in Detroit when she was 12 years old.
"It was big and noisy," she recalls.
Her world was small in those days. That’s how she liked it.
But after she graduated from high school, she left the island to find work and she ended up living in other parts of Michigan and then Illinois, where she met her husband. They then moved to northern Indiana, where they raised their son and his children from a previous marriage. Always, she longed to return to the island one day.
It’s not the kind of life that appeals to just anyone.
Donna Kubic, a registered nurse who heads the island’s rural health center, gets that.
This is a place where one doesn’t take modern convenience for granted. It has one grocery store, a couple of gas stations, a handful of restaurants and bars. There is no full-time doctor on the island, though two visit from the mainland twice a month. Critical patients are airlifted off the island, by the Coast Guard if weather shuts down other options.
As recently as two years ago, if someone needed an X-ray, the films had to be flown to the Charlevoix hospital so a radiologist there could read them. Depending on weather, it could take days. Kubic knew there was a better way. She persuaded the hospital to help her apply for a grant that recently helped her purchase digital X-ray equipment for the health center. Now images can be transmitted in minutes.
Next came video conferencing, connecting the island’s nurse practitioner and physician’s assistant to the mainland hospital’s emergency room. It’s the same technology that allows Bass and the other islanders to take part in the "Circle of Strength" cancer support group.
"Without it, we’d be out here, in the lake, without a lot of support," Kubic says.
When Muggs Bass moved back 12 years ago, she had no idea that she’d soon be dealing with a serious health issue.
A year after she’d been there, she traveled to the mainland for her annual mammogram, which revealed cancerous tissue. She had surgery to remove a breast.
"Then I went along fine for 10 years," she says, until she got a cough she couldn’t shake. One morning, she got up and said to her husband, "I need to go across, to the doctor."
Her lung was filling with fluid. The cancer had spread to her bones.
The support group in Charlevoix has helped her cope. It includes an 80-year-old woman with lung and colon cancer, as well as younger mothers who’ve survived breast cancer and those who are in the thick of the battle. They talk about infections and mammograms, find humor in topics such as constipation.
Joe and Phyllis Moore understand the dynamic.
Earlier this year, the longtime islanders were able to "attend" their youngest granddaughter’s first birthday party in Washington state via Skype.
"Just thinking about it, it almost brings tears to my eyes," says Joe Moore, a retired teacher who’s now a medic on the island, among other things.
It wasn’t ideal. The hard reality, though, is that the cost of getting off the island can be prohibitive.
"I hardly knew my own grandparents," says Phyllis Moore, who grew up on the island. So this is progress.
Many young people who live here say technology — social networking and their cell phones included — makes life on the island better for them, too. But in the end, they face the same dilemma as everyone else: How do you make a living here? And what if there’s really no place for the kind of work you want to do?
Brontae Cole, a 17-year-old high school senior, will be heading to college next year and wants to become a homicide detective.
"There’s one cop here, two in the summer if we get lucky," Cole says. She grins. "And not a lot of dead people."
Like Muggs Bass, though, a growing number of people want to find a way onto Beaver Island — many of them among the thousands who visit each summer and would like to make it home. For many, technology is key.
Jeff Stone and his wife, Sarah Rohner, were able to start spending more time on the island in 2006, when a satellite-based service began offering an Internet connection — a precursor to the current faster service.
Stone quit his real estate job in the Chicago area to start a website design business that he and his wife run from the island much of the year, though not without some initial glitches.
The night before they were about to launch their site, snow from a huge storm covered their satellite dish, cutting off their Internet service.
"We ended up going out in the back yard and throwing snow balls at the dish," he says. Enough snow fell off to get the Internet working, and they were back in business.
Now that Internet service on the island is more reliable, many islanders say improving cell phone service is the big hurdle.
But even those who reap the benefits of technology feel torn. They worry that it infringes on one of the very things they love about the island — its blissful peacefulness.
Bass knows about the squabbles and the way a rumor can take on a life of its own, computer or no computer.
But she says nothing compares with the support she’s gotten from her tiny island community.
"We take care of each other," she says. "I can’t imagine living anyplace else."
When she got her latest diagnosis, islanders organized a "50/50 raffle" for her, where the winner is supposed to take half the donations. Instead, the winner gave his portion to Bass. She received nearly $9,000 to help with flights to the mainland and other expenses related to her illness.
"You talk about emotional," Bass says, tearing up again.
She recalls sitting down after that to pray and, as she might say, have a chat with God.
"I thanked him, and thanked him, and thanked him. I was so grateful that I was able to come back and live here, and for holding me up at this time in my life," she says.
The support group and her new friends on the mainland are part of that.
For her, technology — at least her little slice of it — has allowed the best of both worlds.