Now that weve just wrapped up the most frigid week this winter, lets heat up the season with some talk about rowdy parties, bare breasts, and physical assaults last summer on the Torch Lake sand bar.
Torch Lake residents are busy working in the winter months to turn the ongoing floating party on Torch Lake back to what it once was. More of a family affair.
For decades, boaters have been drawn to the sand bar on Torch Lake, a body of water so brilliantly blue that National Geographic ranked it as the third most beautiful lake in the world.
But partying has grown rowdier in the last several years as the boating population has shifted to a younger, more downstate crowd beautiful women and studly men. Nothing wrong with that, except when clothes start dropping and men start fighting.
I have to be subjected to someone elses idea of fun nudity, drunkenness, drugs, littering, and loud music. This is a form of intimidation that denies families and young children access to this cherished gathering place, said Bob Robbins, vice president of the Torch Lake Protection Alliance (TLPA), a group of more than 550 lakeshore property owners who work to protect the lake.
RICH PEOPLE SUCK
As evidence, Robbins showed a video of a Fourth of July weekend in 2004. The scene captured a crowd of gen-Xers talking, drinking, and wading in shallow water. One person carried a sign, Rich people suck! indicating an attitude toward those who live lakeside (some are not remotely rich, however). An aluminum boat was stacked with beer cans on ice. Then there was a 20-foot makeshift platform in the lake with a sign that said: Get a free beer if you flash! A thirsty college-age, well-endowed woman did just that.
I think the coup de grace was last summer. I was walking out there with another guy, meandering, and the first guy I met was pretty well into his cups; he wanted to know if we wanted to buy some porn movies, said Jack Graham, a lakeshore owner.
We walked a few boats over, heard yelling and screaming, and a couple was engaged in simulated sex on the transom of their boat. There was no question of what they were doing. They had bathing suits on, and that was the only thing to keep them from the actual act.
Is this a problem?
Not to the vast majority who break no rules and dont mind a breast flash or two. They say these lakefront owners dont understand that the lake is public, parties arent against the law, and neither is drinking over the age of 21.
Members of the lake owners group say they have no problem with legal behavior, but kids and vulgarity dont mix. They also dont like boats moored on the lake over night.
Frankly, it doesnt bother me. Its only one or two. But my experience is, its one or two, then two or four, then four or sixteen. This is too beautiful of a lake to get screwed up, Graham said.
And lakeshore owners definitely resent revelers tres-passing across their lawns to tote beer to their boats, the dirty diapers and condoms washing up on the beach, broken glass bottles, and the noxious combustion of alcohol and testosterone. Not to mention pee-drenched water.
They wonder how big this party will grow.
Robbins and others worry that the parties might someday swell into the kind of raucous blow-out on Gull Island downstate that makes Torch Lake look like a sedate tea party. Up to 5,000 people flock to the man-made island in Lake St. Clair to celebrate a Jobbie Nooner party, traditionally held when auto factories close to prepare for the new model year.
Peter Arsenault, who videotapes the event, said its an adult affair, unlike Torch Lake, which has families in the mix. The other difference is that there are no houses on the tiny island.
Partyers flock there every sunny weekend, and the Jobbie Nooner has attracted up to 1,000 boats. But bigger, in this case, is not necessarily better.
Last year was the worst ever drunken fights and I believe there was one sexual assault. They get drunk, they get stupid. It just takes one bad apple to ruin the whole bunch. Unfortunately, the bigger this gets, the more chance theres going to be a bad apple in the bushel, Arsenault said.
But except for those bad apples, the party really is fun, he said.
People set up booths, boutiques, its just like an art fair, he said. Theres no admission fee, nobodys taking tickets, no police checking IDs. Its like the Wild, Wild West.
A lot of women arrive for the fun of popping their top. Arsenault features and sells pictures of the voluptuous pop-toppers on his website. If girls did not have breasts, this party would not exist. The code amongst the men is if they cross the line, the fun ends. Not one out of thousands will touch the girl. They know that if they make one wrong move, theyll wake up and the dream will end.
There have been efforts to close down the party by the nonprofit We Are Here Foundation, which picked up 6,800 pounds of garbage after one bash. The U.S. Army Corps has threatened to post No Trespassing signs. But despite all that, the party has continued, Arsenault said.
This event is pretty much non-killable, he said.
LAST SUMMERS VIOLENCE
To prevent Torch Lake from ever reaching that point of non-killable, the lakefront owner alliance has met with businesses, local law enforcement, the DNR, the DEQ, as well as government officials.
Last summer saw a stepped-up marine patrol, yet there were still problems, Robbins said.
A woman claimed in July that she was sexually assaulted, but it wasnt prosecuted. Then on Labor Day, I heard there was a major brawl. The alleged perpetrator broke a Jim Beam bottle and started slashing people. He cut one guy and got another guy in the artery on his arm. He darn near died on the operating table.
The reason I bring this up is its just getting out of hand. Nobody cares if people hang out and socialize, but when it gets this crazy .
Kalkaska County Prosecutor Brian Donnelly said that the fight had been brewing all day between two boats: the good guy boats one boat and a rowboat and the bad guy boats.
The men on the good guy boats said those on the bad guy boats were obnoxious and rude all day long. At the end of the day, a couple of them (in the water) yelled, Why dont you guys shut up? Which is all it took. Men from the bad guy boat jumped into the water and fought for about a minute in less than waist-deep water. Some guy took a whisky bottle and hit it over the head of a man. The bottle breaks. The man gets a serious cut in his forehead. The bottle-breaking guy is now holding the bottle by the neck and slashes the back of the upper arm of another guy, who is trying to get away. He cuts him more than a foot long.
The cut required up to 100 stitches. Both guys almost bled to death and were transported to the hospital on a helicopter.
Sheriffs deputies stopped two of the three assailants boats, Donnelly continued. They left immediately after the incident, and were stopped on the river near Luhrs Landing. Most of them were drunk the driver on one of the two boats was drunk, the other one was sober. One of the men threw a bag of pot overboard. They acted surprised that someone got hurt and told the deputy someone else started it.
Later, when the injured men were questioned, neither guy could say who did it. I met with the victims parents who are frustrated. They were on the good guy boat, less than 20 feet away. I told them, Correct me if Im wrong, mom and dad, but you were there. Didnt you see what happened? In fact, there was a mom and dad on the bad guy boat, too, believe it or not. Both sets of parents are in their 50s or so.
You would think the parents would have taken some control. I told the victims parents that it puzzles me. When people are having problems with their neighbors, its tough. You cant just move or you may not want to move. But when youre out on a sandbar, wouldnt you just pull up your anchor and go somewhere else? Problem solved.
All the men involved live in downstate cities, including Flint, Detroit and Grand Rapids. Thats made arrests and interviews difficult, but Donnelly said they have identified a strong suspect.
He now plans to obtain court orders that will require witnesses to appear in court and testify under oath. He expects the witnesses, who stood five feet away, to now give honest accounts, as perjury will earn them up to 15 years in prison.
GOING TOO FAR
On the evening of July 28, Sharon (not her real name) was standing in the water with a crowd of men and women she had met that afternoon. An attractive, middle-aged blonde, she had to work that evening, so she kept her drinking to about a beer an hour. Others drank more heavily. She was wary of one man, lets call him Juan, a local guy.
At about 8 p.m., she said that Juan came up behind her, grabbed her, and suddenly, a group of seven guys and one woman converged around her. Juan pinned her against the boat, jerked down her bathing suit top, and forced her arms over her head. The crowd poured beer down her front and took turns sucking on her nipples.
Sharon said she was frightened to the point of paralysis. She did not fight back or say a word. Afterward she acted like nothing happened so they wouldnt have the satisfaction of hurting her, in part because she was used to putting on a tough façade with the troubled juveniles she worked with. The woman involved told her afterward, Youre taking this pretty well.
The fact that she didnt fight, shout, or immediately complain nixed any chance of prosecution.
Kalkaska County Prosecutor Donnelly said that there were people who said they witnessed what happened, and the overwhelming majority gave consistent statements that Sharon acted as a willing participant. He chose not to prosecute because he was convinced there was no sexual assault.
It would be wrong to charge anyone for this. Inside she felt uncomfortable, but she didnt show it. She didnt like it, and felt humiliated, and feels like it was done without her agreement. Thats all completely true, but theres an objective standard. Its like laughing on the outside, crying on the inside, and those arent the ingredients of convincing a jury.
Sharon, however, said she is short (53) and was surrounded by taller men; she doesnt believe a bystander could see what was happening. Shes upset that law enforcement officials were skeptical and said disparaging things about the staff of the Womens Resource Center, which has been supportive of her.
She thinks constantly about that day and how she could easily have been raped or murdered. She sees a counselor and writes madly in her diary. Shes lost 18 pounds, has heart palpitations, sleepless nights, panic attacks, flashbacks, and high blood pressure. She still takes an anti-anxiety pill.
The reason Im talking to you is for public awareness. For anyone who is sexually assaulted, youre overwhelmed and think about it every minute of every day. Youve gotta know, this week is going to suck, but it does get better over time.
The Torch Lake controversy hasnt escaped the notice of officials in Traverse City. In fact, some predict that well be looking at the same issue five years down the road as boats increasingly moor close to the West Grand Traverse Bay shoreline.
Weve been keeping an eye on it, said Traverse City Police Chief Mike Warren. This year, especially, weve had more and more complaints, so weve had some discussion at the staff and community level to see if theres anything we want to look at doing.
Some of the lewd language on the boats is such that you dont want your kids to hear it. Weve had some assaults, a lot of drinking after the evening hours, and in 2005, we had a couple of complaints of public nudity. In one instance, we ended up with a fight on the beach.
There is consensus, he said, that boats need to pull back from the swimming area for safety reasons. Traverse City Commissioner Ralph Soffredine said that the best place for boats appears to be at the far west end of the beach. Theres now an effort to get permission from the DNR to put up buoys to keep boats a safe distance away from the swimmers.
We want to put the boats down there, make room for them. Its a resort area, and youve gotta give them some space, he said.
The Torch Lake citizens group managed to shut down the most raucous of the summer weekends the Torchfest, a floating rock concert that was held on the Fourth of July weekend. In a consent agreement, the organizers said they would not hold the concert without TLPAs permission.
The alliance group has continued to meet with law enforcement and government officials, and believes theres a consensus for more enforcement of existing laws and a greater presence of marine patrols.
Meanwhile, they are trying to better understand the law covering state waterways and the rights of lakeshore owners. Theyd also like the two counties and three townships to draw up a uniform local ordinance barring the transport of alcohol across boat launches, for example.
Prosecutor Donnelly has suggested to the alliance that they find some college students to earn credits by testing daily water samples from the sand bar for dangerous bacteria.
There is no place to go to the bathroom, so what does that tell them? Kids are playing in this water, people are peeing in bottles and then pouring it in the lake, there are diapers floating around. That to me says the water needs to be tested.
I will bet you by the end of the day of a busy Saturday, the water in the knee-deep water is not safe. You could probably get the area restricted with a health department ruling, rather than on the basis of morality, Donnelly said.
Perhaps the test results would prompt a basis for a new law that requires anchored boats to have a toilet on board, he said.
Donnelly, however, believes that some residents are overly sensitive to legal, although annoying, behavior on the sandbar.
There is no easy solution. We have a beautiful recreation area, and people have a right to use it, so its attracting large numbers of people, Donnelly said. I agree with them in some ways, but in some ways, a lot of them just want to keep the lake to themselves.
Not true, said Robbins.
His organization has no problem with anyone who behaves in a safe, legal, and responsible manner. We are looking to our elected state, county and township representatives to restore the sandbar to a place where behavior reflects the community standards of local residents.