Each winter, about 500 year-round residents of the island hunker down on the wind- and snow-whipped island, hoping the lake freezes over enough to create a six-mile ice bridge between the island and the mainland.
After years as summer island residents, Olympia native Mark Rensel and his wife, Michigan transplant Jenifer Silvernale, decided in the mid-1990s to spend the winter there out of curiosity. That first November was almost their undoing as late-fall storms shook their house for a month.
“We were starting to wonder, ‘Was this such a good idea?’” Rensel recalled.
It turned out they made the right decision. Over the next several winters, including two years living on the island year-round, the husband-and-wife team compiled 80 hours of video that they took another several years to craft into a film titled “Ice Bridge, Mackinac Island’s Hidden Season.”
Rensel, who has worked as a musician, sound engineer and film composer, shot the footage and composed and performed the music for the film. Silvernale co-produced and narrated the film.
The two met at The Evergreen State College in the 1980s. Rensel, 58, is a 1972 graduate of Olympia High School and drummer with a popular Olympia rock band called No Toy Boys. Silvernale, 55, started spending summers on Mackinac Island in 1987 and eventually became the island’s sign maker. The two married on the island in 1998.
The film project began as a musical odyssey and morphed into a film with narration.
“Initially, the film wasn’t going to have narration,” Rensel recalled. “It took me about a year to warm up to the idea.”
They wrote the script together. It’s economical and laced with wry humor, patterned after the highly acclaimed film “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.”
They previewed the film during the island’s Lilac Festival in June 2008 to a packed house at the Mission Point Theater in the island village.
“At the end, we got a standing ovation,” Silvernale said last week over coffee at her father’s South Bay home, where the couple are living this summer. “There was a room full of people with tears in their eyes.”
“It was magical,” Rensel added.
They’ve sold 18,000 copies of their labor of love. According to Rensel, when independent filmmakers reach sales of 10,000, its considered a home run.
The obvious audience for the film is the hordes of tourists who descend on the island each year. But take my word for it: the 72-minute film is delightful for even those of us that don’t know Mackinac Island from a Mackinac sweater.
The film’s name is derived from a important piece of winter life on the island: the freezing of the lake to form an ice bridge islanders use to travel, usually by snowmobile, the six miles to the mainland for diversion and supplies.
The ice bridge doesn’t form every winter and seems to be less frequent with the passing years. Climate change, anyone?
But in those years when the ice thickens to at least six inches by mid-winter and two feet by mid-March, the ice bridge is a well-worn highway marked by recycled Christmas trees, an icy, risky path that remains in place until a Coast Guard cutter breaks it up in the spring.
The husband-and-wife team marks the passing of the seasons on the island with remarkable film footage and an attention-grabbing soundtrack that features Rensel’s keyboard compositions.
There are so many images that catch the viewer’s eye. They include:
• The Grand Hotel, the Victorian-style hotel that opened in 1887. The 1980 film “Somewhere in Time” was filmed on location.
• Large, powerful Percheron horses – 700 in all – tromping down the island roads to be ferried off the island in the fall to their winter homes on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
• Steam rising off the water as the lake gives up its heat and succumbs to the ice.
• Ice floes piling up along the western shores of the island.
• The last boat of the season struggling through the ice to reach the island in January.
• The ice bridge activity, including a barbecue out on the icy thoroughfare attended by many of the year-rounders.
Rensel and Silvernale spent plenty of time on the ice bridge to shoot the film. They even bought a snowmobile during their third winter on the island.
• The April snow and ice melt, which turns the island village into a sloppy mess. For year-rounders, its a good time to take a vacation before the tourist season begins in earnest.
Also in April, there still are a few brave – or is it foolish? – souls venturing out on the ice. More than a few snowmobiles have been lost over the years.
“One thing you hear all the time in April is someone saying, ‘Just one more trip across,’” Silvernale said.
• The horses returning to the island for another tourist season.