Kelleys Island is both the largest American island on Lake Erie and also the town that covers the island’s entire 4.4 square miles of land. During summer, it’s one of Ohio’s most popular travel destinations, drawing upward of 250,000 visitors during the tourist season.
“Downtown is pretty lively in the summer,” says Jordan Killam, director of the Kelleys Island Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau. “Visitors patronize our businesses, dock at our marinas, stay in our lodging properties, and tour our nature preserves.” Kelleys Island State Park and its sand beach is also a big draw.
As the summer season comes to an end, though, and the tourist-related business slows to a trickle and then stops altogether, residents of the island begin making their own winter plans; the decision to stay put or to pack up and go is not one to be made lightly.
There is no bridge to Kelleys Island from the mainland, 5 miles away. Air service is available year-round — but only weather permitting. Kelleys Island Ferry Boat Line schedules service into late fall and resumes service in the spring, but some years, the lake ice can linger, and spring fog can cause flights and ferries to be canceled. It’s never a sure bet whether you can get on or off the island in a pinch.
In the early 1900s, it was common for more than 1,000 residents to brave the conditions and stay the winter, but today that number is more like 100 to 150.
Alexi Panehal bought a cabin on the island in 2001, near her father’s. When she retired from the Diplomatic Corps in 2015, she decided to take up residence on Kelleys Island to write books. She says there are three types of residents who stay over winter: “socializers, ‘see you at church on Sunday,’ and those who hibernate.”
“The socializers organize a variety of activities,” Panehal says. “They started dancercise and yoga classes five days a week for anyone who was interested, a book club, a ‘girls in winter’ group, Wii bowling, and VFW potlucks every Sunday.”
There are also traditional island events such as the Christmas potluck, held the Friday after Thanksgiving (the mayor acting as Santa), and the December fish fry. New Year’s Eve is usually celebrated at the Kelleys Island Winery, and at the end of the winter, before the ferry starts running again, the ice party in March — on the ice, thickness permitting.
Winter life routine includes school for the few children who stay after the tourist season — this year, there are eight enrolled at Kelleys Island School.
“We have the opportunity to design programming for the individual student,” says Cindi Herndon, president of the school board. “We connect students with island entities in after-school sessions: the fire department, the Coast Guard, gallery and artist visits, Lego groups, Runners Club, and more.”
As much as they love their fair-weather homes, the winter proves to be too much of a challenge for some longtime residents. Pat and Lori Hayes have owned The Inn, an iconic bed-and-breakfast on Kelleys, for 40 years. But they seal the place snugly for winter and leave the island.
Basic services continue for those who stay. Safety services are the responsibility of the Village of Kelleys Island. “We don’t salt roads; that has been a taboo for a long time, so no expense there,” says Mayor Ron Ehrbar. “We do have to budget for heating and higher electric bills. Since we always have police on the island, we budget for the extra cost when we have to fly officers over.”
The volunteer fire department personnel are fully certified for their specialties. “In the winter, the 15-member crew is down to about six winter residents,” says Fire Chief Bobby Skeans. “We respond to fire calls, critical health issues, accidents, people through the ice — we are always updated on our water rescue training.”
The island’s EMS has had Life Flight available to evacuate critical patients to hospitals in Sandusky or Toledo for decades now — but that, of course, also depends on Mother Nature’s mood. “Life Flight is always weather permitting, so in the winter we have sometimes had to get creative,” Skeans says. “We have even transported via airboat across the ice.”
Electricity, of course, is a tricky bit for an island town. Hancock-Wood Electric Cooperative maintains service on the island year-round via a pair of underwater cables and keeps an employee there 24/7 for the entire year — with additional staff sent over as needed.
“We get some severe winds, so preparation for winter includes dealing with tree issues early, and we have to make sure there are enough supplies here to last the winter,” says Dave Ervin, the Hancock-Wood lineman who staffs Kelleys full-time. “With fewer folks on the island, I get to know the ‘winter people’ by name, even join in on potlucks.”
To keep the Island Market stocked, Rob and Elic Watkins order heavy nonperishables for delivery before the ice sets in. Bread, milk, and other fresh items are flown in once the ferry stops running. “We bought our airboat to be able to collect goods from the mainland for the store,” Elic says.
Josh McGinnis, vice president and general manager for Griffing Flying Service, says winter and summer seasons are quite different for his business. “During summer, we fly mostly one trip a day into Kelleys, with the U.S. mail,” he says. “During winter, we fly four or five trips into and out of Kelleys each day, including the U.S. mail, UPS, FedEx, local freight deliveries for groceries, and passenger travel for the locals and for utility workers. We have flown a number of things to and from the island, anything from normal packages to large outboard motors, bathtubs, construction supplies, caskets, tires — lots of things.”
“We first wintered over in 1992,” says Kelleys Island resident Sandy Alexander. “Our decision to stay harkens back to the idea of a great adventure. We have a good social life with friends — walks, talks, organized activities. There is a real feeling of community.”
“The natural beauty and close ties to the full-time residents are my favorite things about the island,” says longtime resident Rick Holmes. “The winter up here is serene, quiet, and low-key.” Although “it’s not everyone’s cup of tea,” he says, “I feel this is my home here.”