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Torch Lake Independence Day Party returns to local’s dismay

Michael Livingston

More people, more problems says Torch Lake locals and assisting police agencies.

This year saw yet another Fourth of July celebration on the picturesque Torch Lake Sandbar.  Hundreds from around the state and country created a boat village just a few dozen feet from the southern shore.

While last summer’s COVID-19 resurgence seemed to have minimal effect on die-hard partiers, many who stayed home last year made their return. For many families, boating on Torch Lake has become an Independence Day tradition.

“It feels good to be back,” said East Bay resident Brooke Baker. “We planned to come up last year, but we went to a small beach closer to home instead. It’s nice seeing everyone getting back together and feeling good about it.”

Northern Michigan has some of the best vaccination rates in the state according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 58 percent of Atrim county is vaccinated, Grand Traverse is at 68 percent while Kalkaska is nearly 48 percent.

As more boats entered the water, more cars, trucks and trailers lined the tiny side streets surrounding the boat launches. By mid-afternoon the closest parking spot was a half-mile or more away.

Locals had been preparing – posting signs and waving off tourists from parking on their property. Police officers pass the houses on Cherry Avenue and Miller Road every few minutes.

The Rootes live in one of those houses. They’ve watched the sandbar bash get more and more popular each passing year for the last decade. In the past few summers, they’ve decided to make the party profitable by charging $20 to park in their driveway.

“We try to guard our yard and make sure people are being respectful because in years past it’s not been the case,” Susan Roote said. “They’ll come and dump all they’re beer cans on our yard – sometimes even use it as a bathroom.”

Susan’s husband Jim has lived in the area for about thirty years. He, like many other locals, remember 2015 as the most hectic year when nearly 10,000 people were in the water by that Fourth of July evening.

“I think with the inception of (social media) it’s gradually become out of control,” he said. “When I was a kid the sandbar was pristine and you’d see maybe 200 boats on a good holiday weekend. Now you’ll see 2,000 boats and the bottom of the sandbar has a sort of green algae from the PH in the water.”

Susan Roote said she thinks the return to normalcy moves at a slow pace. However, with the return of the National Cherry Festival and an unexpected visit from President Joe Biden, few argued against a significant tourism boost.

“Looks like we’re between about 900 and 1,000 boats out there,” Atrim County Sheriff Daniel Bean said. “Last year I think it was five-six hundred boats.”

With more people, Bean said, there’s the expectation for more criminal activity and misdemeanors. Officers from the Kalkaska County Sheriff’s Office, The Department of Natural Resources and the State Police assisted in keeping order.

Bean said it’s not uncommon for officers to write tickets for minors possessing alcohol, expired boating licenses, children not wearing life jackets and traffic offenses. Assaults and domestic situations are some frequent arrestable offenses.

The Rootes say the most dangerous time is at night when intoxicated people attempt to drive. Police will station themselves to observe who stumbles into their car to prevent an accident before it happens. If they do get behind the wheel, Jim Roote said the consequences are heavy.

“We once had a bunch of cars parked in front of our house and a fellow came down the road in a Bronco with two girls in the back. He was intoxicated and hit five of those cars in front of the house,” Jim Roote said. “The towing company took the cars and we had to tell the people their cars were wrecked.”

In response to the partying, locals have made their own tradition. The Monday after the holiday weekend, volunteers, including divers, waders and boaters, pick up trash from Torch Lake. In recent years, organizers with Stand Up for Great Lakes have led the cleanup efforts – involving collaboration with other groups.

To learn more about the cleanup effort visit the Stand Up for Great Lakes website or show up throughout the week to volunteer.