When you’re stocking up on supplies for an island on Lake Superior, some three miles from the Michigan mainland of the Keweenaw Peninsula, you bring only what you need. Rob Gorski has put much thought into what arrives on the shores of Rabbit Island, the 91-acres of undeveloped land he bought in 2010. With the exception of a Swedish settler by the name of Berg who built a small cabin in 1880, and the odd fisherman seeking refuge on a cold night, the island has never been inhabited. The sugar maples, paper birch and white pine remain untouched, watched over by the resident Great Blue Herons and Bald Eagles.
Having spent many a childhood summer in the Keweenaw Peninsula, learning to fish for pike, trout and salmon, Gorski saw Rabbit Island as something to be protected for generations to come. With the help of a local land trust and a lawyer, he drafted a 20-page conservation easement that was soon approved – and received 501(c) status for the island earlier this year.
“We wanted to dig down to the fundamental,” says Gorski, who lives in New York and returns to the island several times a year. This applies in theory and in practice: One of the main Rabbit Island initiatives is to host an annual art residency (the summer 2015 round had over 200 applicants, who were whittled down to five), as well as launching conservation programs for visiting high school students and scientists. The pristine wilderness and remote location create an ideal backdrop for quiet study – and have drawn a varied group of musicians, sculptors, architects, illustrators, filmmakers, chefs, photographers and, last but not least, one long-distance swimmer.
The idea that a place can be left as it was found is essential to the island – and deciding which things belong there is an ongoing process. “We’ve made mistakes, like bringing a big water pump that proved to be a cumbersome burden rather an improvement,” Gorski explains. He ticks off a running list of things that won’t come to Rabbit Island – including a cement dock (wood doesn’t stand a chance against the harsh winters on Lake Superior) or a garden (importing exotic species would alter the ecosystem). In May, Gorski unpacked all the gear and tools in storage and went through them one by one. He brought a boatload of items back to the mainland – extra flashlights, battery-powered lanterns – that wouldn’t be much use if a bad storm front rolled in and left people stranded for days with no way to get to the store for a pack of AAs. The candles stayed. “They cast a beautiful light – and force you to really look at what’s in front of you,” Rob says with a grin. Other items make the cut every time, like a stainless steel milk pail. “It’s a wonderful feeling to know that nothing will happen to that milk pail. It will never rust,” says Gorski. If something does fall into disrepair or is ultimately no longer useful, it can be disposed of organically – like the leather, wood and steel campstool, made with natural materials that won’t affect the watershed.
This applies to the trio of simple wooden structures Rob and a few friends built using stainless steel nails and one set of tools: a circular saw, hammer, drill, measuring tape and carpenter’s square. Each building sits on a foundation of rocks sourced from the island (the wood comes from a one-man sawmill on the mainland) and follows a basic yet elegant three-wall design to remain open to the elements. With the exception of the 250-pound cast iron sauna stove (the sauna was a must for Gorski, whose Finnish grandfather lived in the area after emigrating to the U.S.), every item down to the tin panels on the roof of the Adirondack-style shelter can be disassembled into smaller pieces and carried out by one pair of hands.
“Everything we build can be unbuilt,” Gorski explains. The concept is a powerful one: Pare down, rather than build up. Take joy in less. Organize better. Learn from nature. Far from following a Luddite ideology or creating one model of self-sufficiency, Rabbit Island is a way to explore and experiment with a new set of values. “It’s those tiny decisions that lead to bigger change,” says Gorski.
First image courtesy Rob Gorski.