Residents of the Upper Peninsula are used to a variety of transportation methods. Whether crossing over the Mackinac Bridge to travel downstate, or the International Bridge to visit Canada – travel over large bodies of water is common to the “Yooper” way of life. Bridges connect the Eastern Upper Peninsula but are not always available to reach all destinations. Four islands in the Eastern Upper Peninsula – Mackinac Island, Sugar Island, Neebish Island and Drummond Island - rely on ferry boats as the main method of transportation for island residents, seasonal visitors and tourists.
Ferries serving Neebish, Sugar and Drummond Island are operated by the Eastern Upper Peninsula Transportation Authority (EUPTA). EUPTA oversees daily operations and manages employees of the Sugar and Drummond Island ferries. Drummond Island boasts two ferry boats - the Drummond Islander III and Drummond Islander IV. The Drummond Islander IV is an everyday traveler of the St. Mary’s River, while the Drummond Islander III is brought out for high traffic days, often during tourist season.
The second largest freshwater island in the United States, Drummond Island is home to over 1,000 year-round residents who rely on ferry service for daily transportation. Built in 2000, the 100-ton Drummond Islander IV has a 32-car capacity and operates 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, taking one round-trip across the river each hour. The Drummond Islander IV is operated by an 11-member crew. Eight of the boat’s crew members hold captain’s licenses and three crew members work part-time as deck hands. The boat also relies on the expertise of two mechanics and the three-member office staff at EUPTA’s home base in Sault Ste. Marie to ensure operations and communications run smoothly each day.
“We rely on teamwork, communications and the experience of our crew to ensure each ferry ride is completed with the highest level of safety for all onboard,” stated Captain and Senior Deck Hand, James Geyer.
Teamwork is essential for the crew as they transport more than 195,000 vehicles annually. Captains work a 12-hour shift which rotates between loading vehicles on to the ferry and working as a deck hand or operating the ferry. Each full-time employee completed training to become a fully licensed captain. While captain’s training is essential, the experience gained by operating the vessel over the one-milewide St. Mary’s River is something best learned while on the job. Severe weather, strong winds, blizzard conditions and heavy fog are factors Mother Nature throws into the training of ferry captains. Earned experience has prepared captains to operate through severe weather conditions, ensuring each trip is safe for passengers.
“We’ve got a good crew,” stated Head Captain, Brad Kuusinen.
Communications are the core of the crew’s success. The crew updates a Facebook page regularly with ferry schedule delays and weather information that could affect commutes of the island residents. Clear communication ensures each trip runs smoothly and safely for all on board.
Drummond Island often hosts big events, including Jeep the Mac, the Drummond Island Off-roading Adventure Weekend and Jeep Jamboree, all centered around the island’s ideal off-roading conditions. The ferry crew is prepared to handle increased traffic through communication with EUPTA staff, Drummond Island Tourist Association, Carmeuse Lime & Stone staff and local law enforcement. If a health or safety emergency occurs, the crew is fundamental in ensuring essential services receive transportation. When the power goes out on Drummond Island, captains are ready to transport Cloverland Electric’s line crews to get the island lights back on, often making trips across the St. Mary’s River in inclement weather.
The ferry provides essential services and transportation to island residents and provides the first experience of island life for visiting tourists. Boarding the ferry is a beloved custom for first time guests and seasonal visitors, and the crew of the ferry strives to provide a welcoming and safe atmosphere for each trip.
“We’re the first thing people see when visiting the island and we’re the last thing people see when they leave.” Geyer explains, “We’re the gateway to the island. Everything we do is with safety and professionalism in mind.”
Ferry captains play a central role in the daily lives of island residents. Whether transporting residents across the river for work, school, leisure or special events like a wedding or funeral – crew members are there to ensure the ride is safe and secure. Captains ensure those with medical needs are transported as quickly as possible, but on rare occasions they have contributed to life saving and start of life events. As of January 2021, two babies were close to being born on board the Drummond Islander IV – a truly unique place to enter the world!
The captains on board the Drummond Islander III and IV are proud of the work they do each day. Teamwork, communications and experience ensure the crew is prepared for each trip, regardless of what Mother Nature or the St. Mary’s river decides to bring across their path.
Follow the Drummond Island ferry on Facebook for schedule and more information.
By Cloverland Electric's Communication Specialist, Abby Bell.