Meet Dustin Shaffer, owner of Island Air Taxi, the only airplane company based in Put-in-Bay.
In the winter, he may fly 20 flights a day, back and forth from South Bass or Kelleys islands to the mainland of Port Clinton, chauffeuring people, groceries and anything else that needs to get on island after Lake Erie freezes and the ferries stop running. He flies the Put-in-Bay school kindergarten teacher over to the island every morning.
“It’s like a light switch,” says Shaffer, 35, who lives on island with his wife and children. “The day the boat stops we’re jam-packed. We go from one or two flights to 20.”
From 7:15 a.m. to 5 p.m., every 15 or 20 minutes, he flies one side to the other, at a price of $40 a flight.
Shaffer is originally from Tampa. Winters on the North Coast took some getting used to. But he likes them. In the summer, Shaffer has a water sports business, gives scenic air tours of the islands and flies charter trips to Cleveland, Columbus and Detroit in his six-seat Piper Cherokee.
Read on for to learn why islanders need at least two freezers and where the Put-in-Bay crowd goes in the winter..
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Who flies with you?
It’s mostly islanders. They need to go to the doctor, shopping, vacation, meetings, boat shows. There’s a few hundred of us who live here.
You have to plan for it. To most islanders, it’s not a shock when there are days that there’s weather and you are stuck. On a recent Sunday, there were low clouds and fog, and there wasn’t a single plane that came and went. If it’s something important, you leave a day before. It’s just planning ahead. Island patience. It’s island time.
During the winter, most everybody parks at the airport in Port Clinton. There are 100 or 200 cars there in the winter. Most everybody has a mainland car and an island car. If not, they just borrow somebody’s.
What about ice fishermen?
When you have ice like we’ve had, we also have ice fishermen who come over from everywhere, too. It’s the fun of being on the island. We’ve got a couple bars open. If you’re going to go ice fishing and sit on a shanty by yourself it’s a little more fun to be on an island.
How did you end up in Put-in-Bay?
My grandparents are from Port Cinton, and I started coming up here when I was 12 or 13. I did my first flight lessons at 16.
I started coming up in the summers, working on the island, and then I’d go back to Key West and work in the winter. The guy that was flying out of here before me, offered to have me fly. That was the first time I stayed here in the winter seven or eight years ago. He moved his business, so there was open spot for me to start my own. Since then we’ve been growing and staying busy more and more each year.
It helped knowing the area. The island’s like a family. So it was easy to transition, with support.
Where does everyone go in the winter?
Key West. Half the island goes down there and takes over Key West. A lot of the musicians play here as well as Key West: Ray Fogg, Pat Dailey. We have Put-in-Bay Days in Key West in the winter, and then we have Key West days on Put-in-Bay. Here is just a smaller version, which I like.
So what’s winter like for those left on the island?
We’re on the opposite schedule of everyone else on the island. It goes by fast because I’m working. It feels like I’m the only one working.
In the summer you’re so busy you don’t see each other for days or weeks at a time. In the winter everybody comes together. You feel the community and the small town-ness of it. You can do something everyday if you wanted to, from shuffleboard to garage poker games. There are indoor golf simulators and foosball tables, ice parties and bonfires. There’s an event pretty much every night.
Everybody knows everybody. Everybody’s friendly, especially when there’s ice. You get 30, 40 four-wheelers riding over to Middle Bass, island hopping. It’s a good time, really.
And after six months of that you’re ready for the people to come back. Six months after that you’re ready for them to leave.
Do you have a grocery store on-island?
We do. I fly all the groceries over Tuesdays and Fridays. We divvy it up.
I fly 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of freight a week, everything from lettuce and vegetables to milk and beer. I mean, anything. Milk’s a little bit more expensive. But it costs a lot to fly it over.
So when you fly to the mainland, you do big trips to the grocery. It’s not a single meal. Everyone has multiple freezers. One for walleye and one for meat. And one for beer.