Torch Lake revelers wearing out welcome

John Barnes
Special to The Detroit News

Torch Lake — Austin Swiercz wears his Torch Lake souvenir on his left foot.

It is covered with gauze and wrapped in flexible bandage. It protects 10 stitches from a sharp anchor that left a jagged gash. He uses crutches for now.

Swiercz, 21, was injured 90 minutes after he waded into the 2015 Torch Lake festival, an event as controversial this year as it was rollicking, rousing and rowdy. And he loved every minute of it.

This year's event left a hangover from trash, trespassing and drunken misbehavior, including brief toplessness.

It's the most recent of raucous boat parties dubbed Midwest Mardi Gras events that are growing in popularity.

The grandpappy of the beer-boosted genre is Jobbie Nooner, an annual boating party that began in the 1980s when participants picked a Friday off work to party on Gull Island in Lake St. Clair. Thousands attended a comparatively peaceful Jobbie Nooner on June 26, and a sequel to close out the summer — Jobbie Nooner Two — takes place on the second Saturday in September.

At popular Torch Lake, in Antrim County, "It's like Panama City (Florida) during spring break," said Swiercz, a Central Michigan University senior from Bay City. "It's definitely a college scene."

Some call the floating party the Lobster Fest — for partiers staying out too long in the sun.

Others call it a nuisance that's getting out of hand. The festival drew perhaps its biggest crowd yet for the July 4 weekend, estimated by police at 10,000 — and complaints from residents about trash, trespassing and drunken misbehavior.

In response, local officials plan to discuss the Torch Fest this week. The Clearwater Township board meets Wednesday. Critics want tighter waste regulations and other measures.

Deputy Clerk Pat Gray cautioned there may be little the township, which has about 2,400 residents, can change.

"There's only a certain amount of things we can do," Gray said. "I mean, it's public water."

Some residents have suggested noise, trash and other ordinances. "The problem is enforcement of these things, and we only have one part-time zoning person," Gray said.

"Sometimes we just have to pray for rain."

Bob Ryan has seen "the good, the bad and everything in-between" from his summer home, "Seanachie," a storyteller in Irish lore. The lakefront site is next to a public access point, an almost unbelievably small parcel that funnels thousands of waders onto the sandbar in Michigan's longest and deepest inland body of water.

The ungated entrance between split-wood fences is 5 feet wide.

"When you have a person crossing your lawn, it's one thing," says Ryan, 69, of Holland, a retired auto-parts executive. "Six to 7,000 people can do some damage."

Sea of boats and bodies

Torch Lake's defining feature is a huge south-end sandbar, shaped by glaciers and other forces of nature, that drops from calf-deep water to nearly 300 feet. For years, it's been a favorite summer spot for outdoor frolicking, especially during the annual Fourth of July festival.

Kid Rock's hit "All Summer Long" — reputed to be about Torch Lake — celebrates the carefree vibe in the late 1980s along the water in northern Michigan: "Splashing through the sandbar, talking by the campfire, it's the simple things in life like when and where. We didn't have no Internet … ."

Traditionally, Torch Fest has been overshadowed by the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City, held the same time some 25 miles south.

But the lake festival exploded this year on social media. Drone video footage showing a lake crammed with pleasure boats was posted on YouTube. Coast Guard helicopters released photos of a sea of boats and bodies.

The event has raised questions about how much is too much, and the changing nature of an event that, for generations, was focused on families.

"It's a rave. That's the best way to describe it," said Greg Payne, president of the Torch Lake Preservation Alliance.

"There was a noticeable increase in walk-on traffic this year. It's been increasing the past few years but, this year it took kind of logarithmic jump."

Payne said professional promoters from outside the area are pushing their interests on Facebook and other social media.

Popular all summer

Photo is of boats docked at the Torch Lake sandbar on July 4, 2015 as related via Facebook by the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station in Traverse City.

One week after Torch Fest, the sandbar was packed again, but far fewer problems were reported.

The smell of grilling drifted east from the Burger Barge pontoon. Lines were 70 people deep much of Saturday afternoon; waiting times reached an hour and 20 minutes, owner Dave Berghoff said. Pizza is delivered on the water by a Zodiac from Fabiano's on the River.

A jet pack floated a swimmer above the water, who bobbed left and right just beyond the sandbar. The FlyBoard was trailed by a personal watercraft that provided ski-like boots with turbo power, propelling downward geysers. Two teams of young people played a drinking game of Tip-a-Cup, powered by Coors Light, Busch Light, Bud Light and Keystone Light.

A middle-age woman from Harrison Township in a floating tube drank Italian wine from a bottle. From a nearby boat blared classic rock and Motown hits: ZZ Top's "Sharp Dressed Man," followed by the Supremes' "Baby Love." A 22-year-old from Chicago stood atop a keg of Labatt Blue.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Pablo Smith said there were no serious boating mishaps, but someone called in a fake May Day.

Smith has never been to the Torch Lake Festival. "But I've heard it's a lot of fun," he said.

Police have not released the number of alcohol arrests and citations. Antrim County Sheriff Daniel Bean did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Ed Golder, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said it's uncertain whether this is the largest such event in Michigan.

"Our department works on a number of events like this around the state, partnering with local law enforcement and the Michigan State Police," he said. "Our concern is public safety. We want people to have fun, but we want them to do so within the confines of the law and with respect for fellow boaters."

This is Michigan's first year of a tougher drunken boating law, which lowers blood-alcohol content from 0.10 to 0.08, the same as for drunken driving.

Preliminary water tests by the Torch Lake Preservation Alliance showed higher ammonia levels consistent with urine, but probably not enough to pose a health threat, Payne said.

Paul Fabian and his wife, Leslie, own Fabiano's on the River, a "Speedway on the Lake" with boat gas and convenience supplies, he said.

The couple supports the festival, but understands lakefront property owners have different issues.

Behind the Lansing native a large Bud Light poster on the store's north wall features a photo of thousands of festival goers.

"Do good. Have fun," the poster reads.