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Spring presents challenges for island community in northwestern Ontario

Spring is the most challenging season for about 70 people who call McKenzie Island, in Red Lake, Ont., home.

Breakup leaves 70 islanders caught between ice and water

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      Spring is the most challenging season for about 70 people who call McKenzie Island, in Red Lake, Ont., home.

      The island, which has the only scheduled ferry service in northwestern Ontario, has no ice road or ferry service while ice thaws and breaks up in the Bruce Channel.

      "I think it's helpful to be a little organized and planned," said Rebecca McCullough, who has called the island home for the past six years.

      "I've seen lots of people bringing some interesting things across in canoes which is kind of fun too," she said. "I find it helpful to have a bit of a stocked pantry, so you've at least got the staples in case the ice comes in quickly, or goes out quickly."

      McCullough says many people, particularly young people, will take some risks in crossing to the mainland. 

      "I'm not fond on that, but we have a lot of younger people in their 20's that will," said Theresa Leppich, who has lived on McKenzie Island her entire life.
      Theresa Leppich has lived on McKenzie Island her entire life. She is also one of the captains on the Miss McKenzie II that operates between McKenzie Island and Cocheneur, Ont. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

      "You're either pulling the canoe behind you if it's safe enough, or you're actually walking with one foot in and one foot out, pushing the canoe along like a skateboard kind of idea," she said.

      Leppich is also a ferry captain, operating the Miss McKenzie II, which runs between the island and Cocheneur, Ont.

      The break-up can't come soon enough.

      "Well last year it was up to three weeks I think we were walking back and forth with canoes. Otherwise, it's usually a week that it freezes. You're stuck at home or you're either stuck on the mainland," said Leppich.

      The island was originally settled when a mine was operating on McKenzie Island. The mine closed decades ago, but some of the original inhabitants remain.
      Julie Kristinnson has lived on McKenzie Island since 1951. She likes the relaxed pace of living on the island year-round. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

      McKenzie Island is a part of the Municipality of Red Lake. The island has garbage and recycling collection, as well as sewer and water service, electricity and cell phone reception.

      The island no longer has a school, or mail delivery, or any retail, forcing islanders to keep a good stock of food on hand for breakup.

      While living on an island may be an inconvenience for some, cheaper housing, along with a relaxed lifestyle has McCullough betting she will stay for many years to come.
      The Miss McKenzie II docked at Cocheneur, Ont. McKenzie Island is seen in the background. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

      "The nice thing about the island is that it's community, right, because we are kind of isolated over here," she said. "Everybody is more than willing to help a neighbour out, if somebody's got troubles with their boat, or runs out of a staple, we all help each other out wherever we can."

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