Seven local students learn about nature, life, and themselves from a week on Rabbit Island
During August this year, several local high school students traveled to Rabbit Island. The island is in the Keweenaw Bay, just south of Little Traverse Bay, and at only 91 acres, the entire, uninhabited island could fit inside of McLain State Park more than four times.
The Rabbit Island Foundation runs a residency program on the island to host artists, scientists, and conservationists on the island, but each year they also host a week-long program called the Rabbit Island School for high school students to engage closely with nature, too. Andrew Ranville, one of the foundation’s cofounders and a mentor to the students while they’re on the island, said that the program is important because it gives students an opportunity to explore nature and their interests in ways they may not otherwise get in school or at home.
Thursday, the students gathered in the Portage Lake District Library’s community room to share their experiences with friends, family, and the public.
Nicole Thyrion, one of this year’s participating students, earned the island name “Snugs” early in the week. Each person, including the mentors, was given such a nickname during their outing according to their actions or personality. Thyrion was observed snuggled up early in the trip and was thus the first to earn her island name.
Each of the students applied as much as a year in advance to take part in the program. The application process can be competitive and includes an essay portion and a letter of recommendation. Thyrion applied for the 2020 program, but that year was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, the 2021 program was able to proceed.
Thyrion said a lot of what she took back from the island was about self-image.
“I was really self-conscious about, like, how I look and everything,” she said. “On the island, you didn’t have any mirrors.”
The students also left electronics like phones and laptops behind, so there were no cameras for selfies, either. Thyrion also said that her perception of time changed.
“I kind of realized that time doesn’t really matter,” she said.
She said she used to track how much sleep she would get each night, “but on the island, I just slept… when I woke up was when I woke up.”
The first couple of nights, Thryion and another student stayed in a tent in the woods, but when they returned to it one day, it was “infested” with spiders. Then she stayed in a hammock hung near the shore of the island. The students also slept on the rocks by the shore.
Being on the island, Thyrion said that she noticed how social stratification melted away.
“It didn’t matter, like your social status, your school status, any of that,” she said. “On the island, it was just us.”
Rain “Mudpup” Isaksson particularly enjoyed the spoon carving activity that they learned on the island. Pieces of wood are selected, shaved down with a hatchet, and then carved out with a selection of tools before being sanded smooth.
“Mudpup” earned their name because of how much they enjoyed working and playing in the mud they found on the island. They used it to make various ornaments and objects. And to throw at each other.
When they returned, Isaksson said they was struck by the ever-present noise.
“There were like five TVs, and then all the people walking around,” Isaksson said. “On the island, there was just like, the birds, the wind, and the waves.”
“Snugs” and “Mudpup” worked together to make sweet potato chili, one of their favorite meals from the trip. They also cooked fresh-caught lake trout over the fire and made popcorn sweetened with maple syrup.
Ryan “Turtle” Dixon took the week on the island as an opportunity to pursue something he’d wanted to for some time—photography. One of the few pieces of electronics they had on the island was a digital Nikon camera that he was able to pick up and use extensively for the first time.
“I learned pretty much everything I know from my experience on the island,” Dixon said.
He said he learned about aperture, ISO, and more on the island and came away from it with some photos that he’s proud of. He spent a lot of time walking around the island and circled it about three times, he said.
Ranville, who earned the island name “Bingo” while playing Scrabble with the students on the island, does what he can to let the students lead their own time on the island.
“So we don’t try to be too prescriptive with the mentors offering certain workshops or classes or anything like that,” he said.
The mentors introduce themselves to the students, explain their expertise in art and creative practices, and then try to “tap into what the students want to explore on the island,” Ranville said.
He said he feels lucky to share the island with the students because each time he gets to experience the island with fresh eyes through them.
“It really just opens my eyes to like, the space in a whole new way, and that kind of gives me a fresh perspective,” Ranville said.
Other students attending this year’s Rabbit Island School included Autumn Eles, Kathryn Fay, Makayla Knuutila, and Claudia Torrey. A full list of Rabbit Island alumni can be found on their website.
Supporting partners in the Rabbit Island School are the Portage Lake District Library, Regrid, and the Rabbit Island Foundation has additional support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.