Mackinac Island attracts upwards of 1 million visitors per year. Plus, thousands of seasonal employees flock to the northern Michigan vacation destination from spring through fall.
But did you know there also are a few hundred people who live on Mackinac Island year-round?
Urvana Tracey Morse is one of about 500 full-year residents of Mackinac Island, where there are no cars and people get around by real horsepower. We talked to her about what it’s like to live in such a beautiful and historic place:
Q: How did you come to live on Mackinac Island?
Some full-year residents were born on Mackinac Island, but not Morse. She grew up in mid-Michigan
farm country and came to work on Mackinac Island during her first summer break in college back in the 1990s. “I just loved everything about it,” Morse said. “I like being outside and there’s a lot of natural beauty up here.”
Morse came back to Mackinac Island on subsequent summer breaks and gradually “my summers just got longer” as she eventually started arriving in April and staying into November. After meeting her now-ex-husband on Mackinac Island, Morse started living there the entire year. She originally rented a house in Harrisonville, a village just up the road from Grand Hotel where many year-round residents live. Then, several years ago she built a home in the Trillium Heights neighborhood.
Q: What do you do for a job on Mackinac Island?
As you might guess, many Mackinac Island residents work in the tourism industry in hotels, shops and restaurants. Morse owns Urvana’s, a unique gallery featuring the works of some 70 artisans in jewelry, woven baskets, painting, pottery, glass, scrimshaw and more.
Like many business owners or managers, Morse keeps busy with her shop in the winter hiring staff and ordering items for the following season. Many other Mackinac Island residents who work in the tourism industry do offseason work in construction or painting to prepare everything for the next year. Some year-round residents also supplement their seasonal income with unemployment compensation at times through the winter.
“We work six months really hard and then we work six months to have our money last,” Morse said.
Mackinac Island also has a school, bank, medical center, post office and city government that employ people all year.
Q: Speaking of school, how does that work on Mackinac Island?
Well, there’s no busing. Students who live on Mackinac Island usually either walk or bike to school. If there’s enough snow on the ground – as there is for much of the winter – they’ll take a snowmobile to school.
The Mackinac Island Public School has about 70 students from kindergarten through high school, and sometimes there’s not even a single student at a particular grade level. With so few classmates, kids who live on Mackinac Island know everybody.
“They become more of like your sister, brother or cousin because you’ve basically been in school with them since preschool,” Morse said. “There’s definitely strong bonds that are made there.”
When school is out for the summer, many Mackinac Island kids work in the tourism industry – often starting at age 14. After all, you don’t need a driver’s license to get to work on Mackinac Island!
Q: With no cars on Mackinac Island, how do residents get around?
Morse has a car. It’s just parked in St. Ignace on the mainland. She uses it to visit family downstate or to take weekend trips, especially in the offseason. Because she drives it only sparingly, the car is low on mileage for its age. And even though it’s not an old vehicle, every time she drives it, she must crank the brakes a bit to get rid of the rust that builds up while it sits idle.
While on Mackinac Island, Morse gets around just like visitors do – on foot, by bike or in a horse-drawn carriage. She also loves to cruise around Mackinac Island in the winter on cross-country skis or a fat tire bike.
Fun fact: You won’t see many snowblowers or snowplows on Mackinac Island. With no vehicles allowed, there’s really no need to clear any roads or driveways! “I always make sure my porches are cleared off with a shovel,” Morse said, “and I’ll take loops around my house in a snowmobile to create a little pathway.”
Q: Where do you get food and clothing on Mackinac Island?
There are lots of great Mackinac Island shops and Mackinac Island restaurants open during tourist season. Of course, dining out every night might break the family budget, so Morse tends to buy food on Mackinac Island at Doud’s Market, which is America’s oldest grocery store, or use food delivery services. In the offseason when she has more time, Morse typically hops a ferry to the mainland with about seven Rubbermaid totes that she’ll fill with dry goods and toiletries in Sault Ste. Marie, Petoskey or Cheboygan. “I might even take a big run to Traverse City if I’m going to go to the Costco,” she said.
Everything gets carefully placed in one of the totes and loaded back on the ferry for the return trip to Mackinac Island. “There’s definitely much more to the logistics around here,” Morse said. “You have to plan a lot more.”
For home maintenance, there’s a hardware store on Mackinac Island. And the pharmacy mails any prescriptions right to the homes of residents.
Q: How often do you leave Mackinac Island?
Most Mackinac Island residents head to the mainland more often in the offseason, sometimes spending the weekend off-island to gather groceries and enjoy entertainment. Morse typically leaves Mackinac Island about twice per week in the winter, for example.
Mackinac Island ferry boats usually run until about mid-January when the water freezes over. Then, Mackinac Island residents fly back and forth to the mainland, although “you’re usually a little more conscientious about going across (by plane) because it’s a more expensive way to travel,” Morse said. She’ll even hike the three miles to the mainland sometimes when ice conditions permit.
Q: What do people do on Mackinac Island for entertainment?
There’s plenty to do during tourist season, of course. As for the offseason, well, “you can be as bored as you want to be, but there’s certainly a lot of activities that you can do,” Morse said.
Many activities center around the school, with residents going to home basketball games even if they don’t have any children on the teams. Mustang Lounge is one of the few Mackinac Island restaurants that stays open in winter, and trivia is a fun thing to do there. There’s also a community recreation department that organizes a variety of programs ranging from Pilates and yoga to woodworking.
And any time of year is a good time for outdoor recreation on Mackinac Island. Running, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are just a few of the things that Morse enjoys.