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Eric Vohr ex­plores Grand Tra­verse Bay and up­per Lake Michi­gan, and likes what he finds

Like many, I of­ten spend my sail­ing hol­i­days far away from home, as­sum­ing that real ad­ven­ture re­quires some kind of in­ter­na­tional flight. More and more, though, I’m learn­ing that some of the best sail­ing va­ca­tions can be found right in my own back yard.

In this spirit, I skipped my usual Caribbean cruis­ing grounds, and a friend and I char­tered a beau­ti­ful 2016 Jean­neau 349 from the Great Lakes Sail­ing Com­pany in Tra­verse City, Michi­gan. The GLSC is ex­actly what I like in a char­ter com­pany, an owner-op­er­ated out­fit with good boats and great per­sonal ser­vice. (The owner even let me bor­row an old pickup to pro­vi­sion, though I wouldn’t al­ways count on that!)

Tra­verse City is a great place to base your ad­ven­ture. There’s a con­ve­nient re­gional air­port with plenty of di­rect do­mes­tic con­nec­tions, and the town has a lot of lo­cal color along with some fan­tas­tic restau­rants. (If you like sushi and craft beer, check out Red Ginger.)

Eter­nal­ized in the short sto­ries of Ernest Hemingway, the coun­try around Tra­verse Bay is also le­gendary in its rus­tic wild beauty. Of course, a lot has changed since Hemingway’s parents built a cot­tage in the woods near Pe­toskey. Back in those days, the woods were full of Ojibwe In­di­ans, boot­leg­gers and lum­ber­jacks, and the wildlife was rich and plen­ti­ful, es­pe­cially the trout. In fact, it was the 20-odd sum­mers Hemingway spent there as a boy and young man that gave him his love for hunt­ing and fish­ing.

In spite of the march of time, the lands and wa­ters here are still some of the clean­est, wildest and most beau­ti­ful you can find east of the Rock­ies. And as you head north, it only gets wilder, as we would soon learn at one of our last an­chor­ages, Beaver Is­land.

This was my first time sail­ing on Lake Michi­gan, and I was truly amazed by the mag­i­cal col­ors of the wa­ters here. I was ex­pect­ing rather gray-brown lake wa­ter, but in­stead I was treated to shades of sap­phire, turquoise and cerulean blue that I would more ex­pect to see in the Caribbean. It al­legedly has some­thing to do with white quartz in the sed­i­ment here. What­ever the rea­son, it’s ab­so­lutely lovely.

Don’t let this lull you, though, into un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the dan­gers of


Great Lakes sail­ing. This is a big body of wa­ter and sub­ject to some ex­treme weather pat­terns, so you need to stay alert and be pre­pared. (Re­mem­ber the sink­ing of the freighter Ed­mund Fitzger­ald im­mor­tal­ized in the song by Gor­don Light­foot—dif­fer­ent Great Lake, but same con­cept.) Also, fresh­wa­ter is less dense and can make for steeper waves, which can be much harder to “pound through.”

That said, the nice thing about Tra­verse Bay is that while it’s fairly large it is still well pro­tected from the heavy stuff, so it pro­vides a few days to get ac­cli­mated. De­pend­ing on the wind di­rec­tion, there are also lot of choices of fun an­chor­ages, most of which have quaint lit­tle towns to visit, each with a nice se­lec­tion of restau­rants and shops.

As you’re head­ing out of Tra­verse City, your first stop should be one of the bays along Mis­sion Penin­sula. This lit­tle tongue of land is re­plete with in­cred­i­ble winer­ies. The tra­di­tion started gen­er­a­tions ago with em­i­grants who mostly pro­duced Ries­lings, in part due to the short grow­ing sea­son, and also due to the fact that many of these pi­o­neers were of Ger­man de­scent. More re­cently the wine scene has lit­er­ally ex­ploded with new vint­ners open­ing yearly, and with those new winer­ies have come many new va­ri­etals, in­clud­ing de­li­cious Pinot Noirs, Pinot Gri­gios, Chardon­nays and Cab-Francs. Many of the winer­ies also in­cor­po­rate amaz­ing and ex­otic food par­ings with their wine se­lec­tions, so bring your ap­petite along on the tour.

One win­ery I was es­pe­cially im­pressed with was Bonobo Winer­ies, where I had the plea­sure of meet­ing Todd Ooster­house, a Tra­verse City na­tive and one of the two broth­ers who started the busi­ness. Todd is not only pas­sion­ate and de­voted to the land he calls home, but also to the art of mak­ing wine, which you can taste in each of his of­fer­ings.

Af­ter feast­ing on lo­cal grapes and grub, my buddy and I headed over to the west side of Tra­verse Bay, where we found a great an­chor­age south­east of Sut­tons Bay Ma­rina. Here you’ll find a beau­ti­ful long sandy beach that’s great for swim­ming/sun­bathing and easy to ac­cess via dinghy. Our goal in Sut­ton’s Bay was to visit the Hop Lot Brew­ing Com­pany—a unique out­door/in­door bar restau­rant/brew­ery that (as one might ex­pect) has an amaz­ing beer se­lec­tion. It’s a short walk from the an­chor­age, and they reg­u­larly have live mu­sic.

Sail­ing north from Tra­verse Bay, there are two towns that are on al­most ev­ery cruiser’s list: Har­bor Springs and Charlevoix. The feel in both these towns is quite a bit dif­fer­ent from what you find in the small

vil­lages along Tra­verse Bay: es­pe­cially Har­bor Springs, which is up­scale and very pop­u­lar dur­ing the sum­mer with boaters and land­lub­bers alike. If you like shop­ping and a wide se­lec­tion of eclec­tic eater­ies, this place should be on your itin­er­ary.

Charlevoix is also a big tourist des­ti­na­tion, but a lit­tle more re­laxed. A chan­nel cuts the town in half and leads into a won­der­ful lit­tle body of wa­ter known as Round Pond, which is well pro­tected and has great an­chor­ing. If that an­chor­age is full, you can con­tinue on to Lake Charlevoix. This is the third largest lake in Michi­gan, so you’re sure to find a spot to drop a hook. For those with a lot of time on their hands, Lake Charlevoix is an ad­ven­ture in and of it­self, with 56 miles of beau­ti­ful shore­line to ex­plore. More pro­tected than the “big lake,” it’s also a good op­tion if weather comes in and Michi­gan gets too wild.

If you want to poke around Hemingway’s old stomp­ing grounds, Pe­toskey is just east of Charlevoix and right across from Har­bor Springs. Un­like the other two towns in this part of the state, Pe­toskey has much more of a lo­cal feel and is a con­ve­nient place to pro­vi­sion, as the prices are a bit more rea­son­able than you’re likely to find in the more touristy spots. It also has a great sport­ing goods store just up from the ma­rina if you’ve lost your sun­glasses or are look­ing for fish­ing tackle.

As it was, we ended up stop­ping in Pe­toskey for two rea­sons: I wanted to breathe the air where Hemingway spent his child­hood sum­mers; and in the spirit of “Papa”(Hemingway’s nick­name) I wanted to buy a few lo­cal lures in the hopes of catch­ing some of Lake Michi­gan’s enor­mous lake trout. While pok­ing around, I also hap­pened to ask the sales clerk what he thought of Beaver Is­land, as we were think­ing of head­ing there next. He paused, got a kind of mis­chievous twin­kle in his eye and said if we were look­ing for “real” Michi­gan we’d find it there. I wasn’t ex­actly sure what he meant by “real” Michi­gan, and he didn’t elab­o­rate, but need­less to say it piqued my in­ter­est.

It’s a bit of a haul getting up to Beaver Is­land, so you have to be com­mit­ted to this kind of ad­ven­ture, and we were. Also, you’re in a large ex­posed part of the lake, so be pre­pared for some good wind and waves if the weather picks up, like it did for us.

In fact, we came into Beaver Is­land pretty hot, with the weather to come look­ing even big­ger and bad­der, so we skipped an­chor­ing and headed into the public ma­rina, the Beaver Is­land Mu­nic­i­pal Dock. This is an awe­some and af­ford­able lit­tle ma­rina that has cof­fee and dough­nuts in the morn­ing and also a washer and dryer—who could ask for any­thing more?

Just as the sport­ing goods story clerk had sug­gested, Beaver Is­land is any­thing but a tourist Mecca, and “lo­cal” in ev­ery sense of the word: no big sur­prise given how iso­lated it is up in the very north of the lake, a good 30 nau­ti­cal miles from the main­land. The only way to get there is via a ferry that runs a cou­ple of times a day from Charlevoix or by light air­craft. In the win­ter, when the lake freezes, the ferry stops run­ning, and the only way in is by plane. Dur­ing those long dark months, most lo­cals stock up and stay put.

Given how quiet and low-key Beaver Is­land ap­peared on ar­rival, we fig­ured we’d only stay one night. But that all changed af­ter we hit the lo­cal bar for a beer and some food. As one might ex­pect, there weren’t

a lot of choices for din­ner—the folks at the ma­rina only of­fered up one sug­ges­tion, Stoney Acres Bar. It was within walk­ing dis­tance, though, so we headed off into the night.

Pre­dictably, the storm that chased us in dumped some se­ri­ous rain on us mid­way into our walk, and we’d left our rain gear on the boat. That’s when we re­ceived our first in­tro­duc­tion to Beaver Is­land’s amaz­ing hospi­tal­ity—the very first car that passed us stopped and of­fered us a ride.

We were a bit wet and the car was al­ready packed, so we hes­i­tated, not want­ing to im­pose. The driver, though, would not take “no” for an an­swer and told us there was plenty of room. Sure enough, ev­ery­one scooted over and we squeezed in. At Stoney’s, we took a seat at the end of the bar. Since were clearly the only non-lo­cals there, we tried to main­tain a low pro­file. Noth­ing do­ing! Two min­utes af­ter we sat down, a cou­ple joined us, in­tro­duced them­selves and asked us where we were from. Then a cou­ple of more folks came over, and so on and so on, un­til we got to know most of the peo­ple there. When we got ready to go, our new friends not only of­fered to give us a ride back to our boat, but also in­vited us to go “boodling” with them the fol­low­ing af­ter­noon.

“What is boodling?” I asked. “You’ll find out!” was the an­swer. Now this might make some folks ner­vous, but it sounded like an ad­ven­ture, and with all the hospi­tal­ity we’d been shown, we couldn’t re­ally refuse. So, we ac­cepted the in­vi­ta­tion and agreed to meet at our boat at 1500 the next af­ter­noon to “boo­dle.”

The fol­low­ing day, be­fore the boo­dle started, we fi­nally got an ex­pla­na­tion of what we might ex­pect from our day’s out­ing. For the record, tra­di­tional boodling is when a bunch of folks put lawn chairs in the back of a pickup truck and drive around the is­land drink­ing beer and cock­tails. Our par­tic­u­lar boo­dle was in­side our new-found friend’s ‘80sv­in­tage sta­tion wagon with a fallen head­liner and, ap­par­ently, no shocks. (To clar­ify, that is a fairly stan­dard “ride” for Beaver Is­land. Here, peo­ple drive cars un­til they be­come part of the earth.)

As one might ex­pect, we ran into some other boodlers, and the whole thing felt like an is­land party. I know all of this might sound bizarre, but it was a to­tal gas. We were also mostly bump­ing along at un­der 15 miles an hour on dirt roads, so it was not too dan­ger­ous—and traf­fic on Beaver Is­land is min­i­mal at best.

When we woke up the fol­low­ing morn­ing the storm was still sit­ting on the is­land, but we had no prob­lem spend­ing another night on Beaver Is­land. And though we were boo­dled out, one of the folks we’d met who worked at the ma­rina let us bor­row her car to ex­plore the is­land, so we vis­ited a num­ber of gor­geous pris­tine lakes and some very beau­ti­ful beaches and hik­ing trails. There is also a rental place, Happy Pad­dle, which rents bi­cy­cles, kayaks and stand-up pad­dle­boards.

If you want to learn the is­land’s his­tory, stop at the Beaver Is­land His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, which is right across from the Beaver Is­land Mu­nic­i­pal Dock. On the other side of the har­bor is the nifty Beaver Is­land Toy Museum if you are into that kind of thing. (It’s ac­tu­ally pretty cool. I highly rec­om­mend check­ing it out.)

Another at­trac­tion is Beaver Is­land Head Light. Lo­cated high on a bluff on the south­ern tip of the is­land, it was erected to help boats safely pass be­tween Beaver Is­land and Gray’s Reef. Built in 1858 to re­place an older light, the 46ft tower and decago­nal lantern room of­fer won­der­ful views of the lake.

By now our char­ter time was sadly run­ning out, so the next morn­ing we said good­bye to Beaver Is­land and set out to brave the big winds that were wait­ing for us just out­side the shel­ter of the har­bor. Hap­pily, we had 25 knots of wind on the beam, giv­ing us a fast but safe rocket-ship ride back to the shel­ter of Tra­verse Bay. The sun was dip­ping low in the hori­zon on our ar­rival, so we spent our last night in North­port, which turned out to be another beau­ti­ful lit­tle lake­side town steeped in good-old Michi­gan charm.

At this point, my buddy had to head home, but I had a lit­tle ex­tra time and so had booked a cou­ple of nights on Mack­inac Is­land. It was a won­der­ful drive from Tra­verse through Michi­gan’s North Coun­try, and I stopped a cou­ple of times to try my luck at fly fish­ing (more of the old Hemingway rem­i­nisc­ing). Alas, my luck wasn’t as good as Papa’s back when these rivers were teem­ing with fish. Still, I got to see some beau­ti­ful coun­try, which made these lit­tle di­ver­sions worth the time.

My rea­son for vis­it­ing Mack­inac Is­land was a com­bi­na­tion of cu­rios­ity and my pas­sion for clas­sic ho­tels. Mack­inac’s Grand Ho­tel, with its enor­mous sweep­ing porch, is one of the most fa­mous in the coun­try. You might re­mem­ber it from that fa­mous film with Christo­pher Reeve called Some­where in Time.

The is­land is one of the most pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tions on Lake Michi­gan and gets pretty crowded in the sum­mer months. How­ever, there’s a fan­tas­tic round-the-is­land walk that takes you far away from the hus­tle and bus­tle and pro­vides amaz­ing vis­tas and space to re­lax and take it all in. I rec­om­mend rent­ing a bi­cy­cle un­less you re­ally like to walk, since this path is quite long as it cir­cles the is­land.

My stay at the Grand Ho­tel also hap­pened to co­in­cide with the fin­ish of the Chicago-Mack­inac race, and I chat­ted with a few rac­ers at the af­ter-party bash, as the “dark and stormies” helped them get their land legs back. As I did so, and in in spite of the charms of the Grand Ho­tel, gaz­ing out over the wa­ters of Lake Michi­gan only made me want to get back out on them as soon as I could. In short, I’d dis­cov­ered a whole new cruis­ing ground—the Great Lakes! My next trip: Lake Huron! s

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