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Mackinac: An island experience



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July 07, 2010 - On a headstone in the Protestant Cemetery on Mackinac Island is engraved the words, "For whom God loves, he gives a home at Mackinac."

Shannon Larsen, a 2006 Brandon High School graduate, has found this to be true. Speaking by phone from the island this week, where she is spending her third consecutive summer, Larsen said, "I work here in the summer, I come back in the fall, I come back in February. I'm addicted to this island. It becomes your home, where you get away from everything and can just be."

A Girl Scout since she was in fourth grade, the 22-year-old who will be a Grand Valley State University senior this fall is a scout coordinator in the Mackinac Island Scout Service Camp program. Various scout troops spend a week each at Mackinac from Memorial Day through Labor Day every summer, performing duties such as raising 28 flags around the island, including American flags with 50 stars for the current flag, a 38-star flag at Fort Mackinac representing the number of states in the 1880s time period, and a 15-star flag outside the fort for the number of states in the union directly after the Revolutionary War. Other flags the scouts raise include the British flag, French colonial flag, French Royal flag, the Canadian flag and the Michigan flag.

Scouts at the island also perform guide duty around the fort and in the historic downtown buildings and when they aren't raising or lowering flags or being guides to the many tourists, Larsen leads the weekly groups of roughly 55 scouts in doing service projects such as picking up trash around the island, painting benches, or washing headstones at the Catholic and Protestant cemeteries.

It's not all work and no play for the scouts and Larsen loves having fun with the scouts during the evening programs when they go on night hikes, hay rides, boat cruises, or put on skits. Her favorite part of her job, however, are the fire drills every scout troop must have in which they are required to get out of the barracks and get lined up and accounted for in under two minutes, due to the age of the buildings and the fact they consist solely of wood. Larsen uses an airhorn around midnight for the drills, startling exhausted kids out of sound sleep.

"It's the funniest reaction you could ever see," she said. "They wake up screaming bloody murder or go back to sleep. They all pass the drills though. I had one boy scout who was dead asleep in his pajamas, downstairs and in full uniform in that two minutes. It's never a dull moment around here."

In spending a quarter of each of the past three years on the island, Larsen has gained an insider's perspective. She rattles off facts about Mackinac: the island has an airport; all of the horses are shipped off the island at the end of the season and taken to various farms around the state for the winter; and the island has the only highway in the state of Michigan where motorized vehicles don't travel.

"I love coming up here and experiencing this island as a whole," she said. "Sure you have your fudge shops and carriage tour rides, which are wonderful, but it's even more of an experience to leave downtown and hike out into the middle of the island and see the trails and the limestone rock formations and it's humbling to go out and see Arch Rock, formed 12,000 years ago... It's an experience, almost a state of mind. It's amazing to think this place has been used for thousands of years and has meant so much to so many people."

To get internet, Larsen has to go downtown, and she barely gets cell phone service. She doesn't watch television at all while on the island, and says the isolation is "liberating."

The return to the mainland can be an adjustment. She remembers after her first summer, when she got off the island and back into her car, she couldn't immediately remember which pedal was the gas, and which was the brake. She also is unfamiliar with current music or television shows when first leaving the island and even current events nationally or statewide, since the only news she gets at Mackinac is from the local island newspaper.

Larsen has gotten to know the seasonal and year-round residents of Mackinac and says the island is definitely a community, not just a tourist attraction.

This summer will be bittersweet as her last one as Mackinac scout coordinator.

"It's time to graduate from this program and hand off the reigns to another fresh young college kid," she said.

"It's an experience I will never forget. I may like fudge again. I will miss the island, but I have made so many friends and had so many experiences and fantastic memories. We'll see where life takes me, but I know I'll come back to Mackinac, even if it's just to visit."

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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