Beaver Island: Tears, Joy as Nowhere Goes Online

In this photo taken Oct. 6, 2010, Muggs Bass, 70, sits in her kitchen in her home on 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.

Island Life

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.

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.

Connie Boyle, a teacher at the school, had a vested interest in helping grow the school's technology program, partly because she and her husband decided to raise their daughter on the island after moving from Chicago 25 years ago.

"We were worried - 'How do you bring up a kid on very tiny Beaver Island?"' Boyle says. An answer came when their daughter, now a freshman at Michigan State University, called recently about her computer class.

"Mom, I don't get it," she said. "I'm helping everybody here. We did all this in high school."

From Past to Present

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.