School House Beach


I always seem to find this place by instinct, a map of Island roads in my head, headed north down Main Road…the small white church coming into view–turn right…St. Michael’s Chapel–turn left…the cemetery…tombstones, pine trees, flashes of blue water—and ah, yes, here it is: the sudden rush of those bright white shiny stones…almost no place else like it in the world, a limestone beach like that. I was delighted as well to confirm my route, discover the late Island poet, Bill Olson’s directions to the white stone beach in his Washington Island Guidebook of 1994:

“Retrace your route to Bethel Church and turn on to Jackson Harbor Road. A short distance on your right you will see a building that has served as an Island store and later as a Catholic Chapel. Turn left through the peaceful and picturesque Island cemetery to the park at beautiful School House Beach.”

What’s so attractive about a stony beach? Well, like everything else about the Island, the place seems so natural, so unassuming, just lying in wait for the sojourner who happens to come upon the grand sweep of this quiet cove by bike, on foot, by car. Historically, Washington Harbor, by name. The site of the first log school house on the Island (1850). Deep, clear, blue waters that have sheltered many a ship and small vessel in storms.

You approach the beach, make your first step, one foot still on solid, quiet earth, the other coming down on the less then sure-footedness of stone that is about to take you for a rolling ride, challenge the balance of your every step…conversing with you all the while, in that harsh, hollow-depth sound of ‘stone-talk’ clacking at your every movement, directing your eyes to pay attention: down here, look at me…at every one of us. What a miracle we are, millions of us, what a myriad of shapes and sizes, all worn smooth, beautiful by time and water.

Pick me up. Let me make a home in your hand. What purity of shape. Touch and feel. (But do not take, under penalty of fine.) Run your fingers around the smoothness, the satisfaction of being nothing more than stone. The wonder of white glowing within. Not another one like me in sight. Drop me, throw me elsewhere on the beach with a clack. Or pass me into the hands of a small child, to toss, to skip back to the blue waters where I was born.

And will slowly make my way back to School House Beach for generations to come, where historically, naturally I belong…in that garden of white stone.

–Norbert Blei