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Snowmobiling to school 'a way of life' for Mackinac Island students

Snowmobiles parked outside the Mackinac Island Public School in February.

For years, snowmobiling has been the main source of transportation during the deserted winter months on Mackinac Island.

In the Straits of Mackinac, where wind chills regularly hover at or below zero and snow can last until May, school on Mackinac Island has been called off exactly once this year.

Hardy souls up north, no doubt, but classes continue for other reasons: A small district by geography and isolation -- most students live within three miles of the building -- and because the island has no busing.
Students instead get to school the same way that Kyra Kolatski came home from the hospital after birth 18 years ago -- by snowmobile.
Kolatski's mother once bundled her tightly to get her home, but now the senior at the island's public system layers up for the ride, straps on her backpack, puts her lunchbox on the handlebars of a snowmobile and heads to school. She then packs her cold weather gear in a locker and goes to class.
The majority of the district's 70 students do the same, sometimes with younger siblings or neighbors in tow on plastic sleds behind the motorized sled.
"I've never known anything different," said Kolatski, a lifelong island resident. "I love the snow and love the convenience of snowmobiling."
The winter solitude, an outlier from the crazy tourist season that attracts thousands on a daily basis, also leads to another travel anomaly of flying sports teams to the mainland for games during the winter months. Administrators boost the athletic budget to account for the transportation.
Dave Waaso, the school superintendent, says unlike his lower and upper peninsula colleagues, he appreciates larger snowfall totals that build a solid base.
"Generally, we don't have snow days. We want the snow so we can get to school easier. It's just the thing to do," said Waaso, who drives his own snowmobile to school. "Once you get your snowmobile stuff on, it's not going to stop you from getting to school. They're so used to it, they don't think anything of it."
While motor vehicles are outlawed on the eight-mile island, local law permits snowmobiling from Nov. 15 through April 15. The sport is ideal when there is at least three-to-four inches on the ground, otherwise the machine's skis drag, Waaso said. After that April date, students have to either walk or ride their bikes to school, whether they're knee-deep in snow or able to have pavement under their feet. 

"It doesn't melt that fast," Waaso said of the snow. "So when it comes, it stays for a while."
Accumulation on the island is not as high as many would think, mainly because the area does not get lake effect snow like many West Michigan communities. The island has gotten about a foot and a half of snow this winter as of late February compared to about four feet last year, Waaso said.
"Some people might think it's miserable during the winter, but it's very peaceful in the winter here," he said, describing his serene office window view of the majestic Grand Hotel. "It's really a different lifestyle that some people really love."
Allison Sehoyan, a parent of 12-year-old twins, had not been on a snowmobile for up to 15 years when she became a full-time island resident about a decade ago. When her children Ava and Leon started school, she began snowmobiling again so they could get an education.
"They were a little scared by the noise at first, but they loved it and look forward to it every year," Sehoyan said. "Winter is their favorite time of year. Driving themselves around gives them some independence and they absolutely love it.”
"But everything smells like a snowmobile -- that does take some getting used to," Sehoyan laughed.
The plight of Mackinac students is shared to some degree by their counter parts on northern Michigan's Beaver and Drummond Islands. Children there typically ride buses or are dropped off at school, but a few occasionally ride snowmobiles to and from school in the winter months.
A handful of Beaver Island Public Schools staff also trek through the snow on bikes equipped with snow tires, Superintendent Riley Justis said. He attributes snowmobiling to the school's near-perfect daily attendance -- 98 percent -- for its 58 students.
"We have very good attendance at school and snowmobiling is the reason why," Justis said.
Back on Mackinac Island, students do not give a second thought about suiting up, parking their snowmobiles at school and hanging their helmets on pegs above their lockers before heading to class.
"At first, I thought it was really cool," said Waaso's 17-year-old daughter Peyton. "Now, it's just a way of life."

This article was originally published on MLive.
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