Growing up on the waters surrounding Long Island, New York, and eventually venturing offshore along the East and West Coasts, I often used the phrase, "It's as smooth as a lake" when referring to a particularly calm day. Whoever authored this popular catchall, though, never experienced Lake Michigan or Lake Huron's Georgian Bay.
The quickness and severity of deteriorating weather conditions on the Great Lakes are a surprise to outsiders entering these waters for the first time. Most of us saltwater know-it-alls start out with a certain "we've seen it all" smugness. Well, you haven't seen anything until you experience the Straits of Mackinac in a 40-knot blow.
Here the waters of Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron, come together to form a confused state of affairs. Add a generous amount of wind, and you're in for a day that will provide years of great sea stories. But experiencing such extreme conditions may be the only surprise about the area that isn't pleasant. Indeed, there are so many reasons to go boating in this northern paradise, it's no wonder Michigan has one of the highest numbers of registered boats in the country.
Approaching the area from the north, you'll find some of the most pristine waters and remote cruising grounds in the world. Kayaking among the Benjamin Islands in the North Channel, the Canadian body of water between Georgian Bay to the east and the U.S. border to the west, I confidently drank the cool, crystal clear water cupped in my hand. It was late August, and we were nearly alone in our anchorage, surrounded by gently sloping rock formations, wind-bent pines and ghosts of the Ojibway Indians. At night we'd find a clearing, make a fire ring and roast marshmallows under the stars. These are the priceless moments that make us boaters for life.
To the south is Gore Bay, where the color of the water will have you believe you've been beamed up from the Bahamas. A small, friendly town, it is the base of Canadian Yacht Charters, which has a fine fleet of sailboats and trawlers. For those who can't spend the time getting to this paradise on your own boat, you can charter from here and set out for the North Channel and Georgian Bay.
Returning to the States, Drummond Island, Michigan, is just 40 miles from Gore Bay. Drummond Island Yacht Haven is a convenient and pleasant place to clear customs and spend a night or two. For those who want to jump ship for a spell, there are 20 first-rate cottages, with beautiful views of Potagannissing Bay, available for rent. The marina can accommodate yachts up to 125 feet and will lend you a car to run into town. For a local treat, you'll want to try the whitefish and perch at the nearby Northwood Restaurant.
If you feel the need for a more gentrified setting, head to ever-popular Mackinac Island, where the streets are lined with fudge shops, fine restaurants and quaint bed and breakfast inns. Avoiding the omnipresent horse droppings is the price you'll pay for the peace and quiet of the carriages and carts, as motorized vehicles are not allowed on the island. Ferries arrive throughout the day with herds of tourists from the mainland, much like Block Island, Rhode Island. If you want a slip at the State Dock, you'll have to arrive early in the morning and get on the daily waiting list. Listening for your name on the VHF is like waiting for a table at your favorite Outback.
There is a playful summer resort atmosphere everywhere on the island. We were invited to "Comedy Hour" at a local hotel and were promised it was fit for the family. After a half-hour of horribly lame, off-color jokes, the "comedian" asked the audience if it had any questions about the island. My 12-year old son, Dimitri, raised his hand and asked, "Are there any comedians on this island?" He got the biggest laugh of the night.
You can't visit Mackinac Island and not stop by the Grand Hotel. It claims to have the largest outdoor porch in the world. It's also famous for it's Sunday Brunch, but don't forget your tie, jacket and wallet. This is a magnificent, anachronistic establishment, and if you like to people watch, it doesn't get any better.
When you've had enough of crowds and fudge, head for Beaver Island. But beware. The route takes you through the Straights of Mackinac, where we experienced the roughest conditions in our entire 8,000-mile Great Circle voyage. Waiting for you is the small, but modern, municipal marina, and best of all, the Shamrock Bar & Grill. Here is where you get to tell your stories about braving Lake Michigan's weather in the company of other survivors. If you're looking for a bit more sophistication, you'll enjoy Nina's at the Beaver Island Lodge.
Beaver Island is the opposite of Mackinac Island. With a summertime population of around 3,000, it's where you come to rejuvenate your spirit and soul, walk the beaches, explore by mountain bike and observe the wild turkeys, ducks, rabbits, and yes, beavers. During the summer, a daily ferry from mainland Charlevoix makes the island almost too accessible. You may not want to wait too long to visit, as this unspoiled gem has been discovered by travel writers in big cities everywhere.
Thirty-five miles away on the mainland, often referred to as the "northern lower peninsula," Harbor Springs awaits those who have always wanted to be in a Norman Rockwell painting. This is where the rich and famous came to build their "summer cottages." Walking by these immense estates, built before the days of income tax, one wonders what their everyday home could have been like. We were impressed by the immaculate manicured appearance but struck by an odd absence of people. Where was everyone, back in Detroit working hard to maintain these gorgeous homes?
As we worked our way down the coast toward Chicago, we were treated to one fascinating small town after another. Each one-Leland, Frankfort, Pentwater and Saugatuck-had a different feel to it. Yet they all shared a wonderfully rare characteristic: friendly, graciously hospitable people. Considering where I grew up, I'm used to people stealing cars. In this part of Michigan, people lend their cars to strangers, or at the very least will drive you anywhere you need to go.
We'll never forget the native Americans in Leland who fish these waters year round in strange, indigenous boats designed to hold fish and protect the crew from the elements, all in one odoriferous cabin. Not far from the picturesque Fishtown area we enjoyed a succulently fresh whitefish dinner at The Bluebird, run by the same family since 1927.
Frankfort has excellent marinas, including Jacobson's. Pentwater, undergoing change brought about by suburban sprawl, fortunately still has The Brass Anchor, one of the most fascinating chandleries we've been to. Saugatuck is awash in art galleries and fine eateries. Although lacking in boat supply stores, finding a slip at one of the many marinas such as The Singapore Yacht Club, is easy.
Above all, the biggest surprise for us Long Islanders was the beautiful, sandy beaches. The Hamptons have nothing on the white cliffs and pristine, expansive beaches of Lake Michigan. And, they have the added attraction of fresh water. How unusually refreshing it was for us to take a swim in the surf and not feel scales of salt on our skin. And how easy it was to keep our boat-and us-clean using our "saltwater" washdown pump.
Maybe when old salts die, they get to go to boat heaven, a place like The Eastern Shore of Lake Michigan or Lake Huron's Georgian Bay. But to get there, they'll occasionally have to go through hell-a day that's "as smooth as a lake."
George Sass Sr. is a frequent contributor to our sister magazine, MotorBoating.
PLACES OF INTEREST
Beaver Island Marina (231) 448-2300 Beaver Island Municipal Dock (231) 448-2252 Drummond Island Yacht Haven (800) 543-4753 Harbor Springs Municipal Marina (231) 526-5355 Jacobson Marina - Frankfort (231) 352-9131 Leland Township Harbor (231) 256-9132 Mackinac Island State Dock (906) 847-3561 Pentwater Municipal Marina (231) 869-7028 Singapore Yacht Club - Saugatuck (269) 857-2442 Snug Harbor Marina - Pentwater (231) 869-7001 Walstrom Marine - Harbor Springs (231) 526-2141
The Bluebird - Leland (231) 256-9081 Grand Hotel - Mackinac Island (906) 847-3331 Nina's Restaurant (231) 448-2396 The Shamrock Bar & Restaurant (231) 448-2278