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Winter Life on Put-in-Bay

2008-12-10

There's a bit of protocol a walker on South Bass Island Put-in-Bay should observe during the winter. When that rare car comes by, be sure to wave.

You probably know the driver, and he or she knows you. That's because once the last visitors leave on the ferry or by airplane the first weekend after Thanksgiving, life on Put-in-Bay in Lake Erie drops into winter tempo. It becomes even quieter and more remote once the last ferry boats leave the dock at the end of December.

From that point on until the ice breaks up in mid- to late March, island life goes into hibernation.

Not that people simply curl up and sleep until the spring thaw. Folks still drop in at the Wrinkle Room for a brew and dinner.

There are a couple of restaurants open through the winter months so the 400 to 450 islanders who live here have a place to socialize and vary their routines.

There are two churches on Put-in-Bay, an island grocery store, a hardware store, a coffee place and one gas station still open for business. The only bank is open for just a few hours one day of the week.

The post office is open on days the mail and newspapers can be flown in from "America." That's the term some islanders used to describe that distant mainland.

A friend and I dropped in to have Thanksgiving dinner with our friends LaVon and Lorin Swinehart.

The Swineharts, who have wintered over on Put-in-Bay in the past, work for the National Park Service at the Perry Monument. Their season is over, but many of the park's personnel stay on South Bass during the ice months.

They are not alone. Ice fishermen are making their way over by air or by sea for what has become the island's one winter industry.

Many of you who have visited Perry's Monument or just gone to Put-In-Bay to have a wild summer fling see the place as a wild hive of tourists. I've seen the place on the Fourth of July, and it's a madhouse.

But on Thanksgiving the downtown was deserted. Most of the bars, restaurants and gift shops were boarded up. Not a soul was on the streets, even though some Christmas lights were out.

Just one restaurant, the market and wine store were open for business and few cars were parked outside.

At night the silence is unearthly. That's especially true for those of us who live in cities and can't sleep without the sound of distant sirens as our lullabies.

LaVon Swinehart told me real islanders stock up. Some can live without a television set (not much to watch up here anyway) or even without a computer --but nobody lives without a freezer or two. Stocking up is a way of life.

People take the ferry to "America" and return with a car full of bathroom and kitchen essentials and frozen foods.

Lorin told me many visitors simply can't picture life under these conditions. They can't imagine what it would be like not to make their daily shopping trips or drives. The idea of having to stock up seems to puzzle them.

LaVon said there are old-time islanders who won't make the "trip to America more than two or three times a year."

Last year, the ice was very slow to melt. By late March there was a threat of food shortages. LaVon is sure islanders would have simply shared with each other until the ferry boats were running again.

Islanders know each other quite well and, in the main, get along, LaVon said.

There are times when the fog is so thick or the snows so heavy that airplanes are grounded and folks have to wait for mail or specially needed items.

There is no pharmacy, doctor or dentist at Put-in-Bay. In case of trouble, there is one emergency medical person who can call in help by helicopter.

"In the summer when you hear a helicopter taking off you think it's probably some tourist who overdosed," she said. "But in the winter you know it's somebody you know."

She said islanders work hard from spring to autumn to make their livings. So the winter break is often fairly welcome. It's a time when friends who don't have time to socialize during the tourist season finally have time to drop into the Wrinkle Room and do just that.

There are a lot of oddities to the isolated life, including keeping the faith.

Should bad weather prevent the Episcopalian or Catholic priests from flying in, members of the congregation have been authorized to act as lay ministers. I'd have given a lot to see Lorin all robed up to deliver the sermon at the Episcopal Church on a nasty Sunday like that.

One last note: There is no better place to watch a sunset than at the boat dock at South Bass Park. That is especially true if there are some good cigars to smoke.

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