Weekend Cruising Destinations: Beaver Island

The following is a reprint of an article I authored for SAIL Magazine's March, 2012 issue.  The pictures in the blog post are my own and differ from those that appeared in the magazine.  You can read our logs from this cruise by clicking here.

Favorite Weekend Cruise: Beaver Island - An old Mormon kingdom off the coast of Michigan

We left the hustle and bustle of Charlevoix, Michigan just in time to make the second drawbridge opening of the morning as we pointed the bow towards Beaver Island, an isolated destination about 32 miles offshore in the middle of northern Lake Michigan. There was a thick fog on the inland seas as a light drizzle fell from the gloomy sky. Thanks to our chartplotter, I knew our position and the proper heading to make landfall on the island, but I was weary of the fog without radar.  I also knew we were following the approximate route of the Beaver Island passenger ferry, so I raised the ferry captain on the VHF.  He confirmed he had us on radar and would give us room when he passed us to port about 30 minutes later.

The ride over put our foulies to the test
The water between the Beaver Island archipelago and the mainland of Michigan's Lower Peninsula covers a shallow area of shoals and reefs known broadly as Gray's Reef.  It's an eerie feeling sailing several miles from land and watching boulders and sand patches glide by beneath your hull in the crystal clear water.  The underwater view is best between Beaver Island and the Straits of Mackinac, where the depth is just 20 feet or less for miles.  As an added bonus, this route gives view to several unique mid-lake lighthouses.  The most striking may be the abandoned Waugoshance Lighthouse, which looks like something from the set of a Hitchcock movie with its rusted metal, crumbling concrete, and flocking gulls.

We arrived safely in St. James Harbor and were reminded by a glance back towards the now missing mainland that the island is the most remote inhabited island of the Great Lakes with a year-round population of just 650 people, largely of Irish decent.  After setting our anchor in the shallow harbor, it was time to go ashore for some exploration.

The lighthouse in St. James Harbor on Beaver Island
Beaver Island is a nature lover's paradise, but I find the social history even more compelling.  Following the 1844 murder of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church, James Strang became the leader of his own Mormon sect.  Strang and his followers, known as "Strangites", moved out to the relative seclusion of Beaver Island in 1848.  They initially flourished and founded the town of St. James, named after James Strang. Shortly thereafter, Strang took up polygamy and declared himself king of the church and island with an elaborate ceremony featuring a crown, royal robe, shield and wooden scepter.

Strang and his disciples fought frequently with the islands other residents.  But the fighting came to an end in 1856 when Strang was murdered by two former disciples he'd had flogged when their wives refused to abide by his dress code.  Soon after, residents from the other nearby islands drove the remaining Strangites off Beaver Island and confiscated their property.  Strang's strange kingdom was no more.

Dinkin' around on the dinghy in St. James Harbor
As you walk the streets of St. James, there are pieces of history on every corner.  A print shop built by Strang's disciples is the only remaining building from the era of his rule and is now a museum dedicated to the island's unique history.  After the Strang years, Irish immigrants quickly populated the island and turned it into the largest supplier of freshwater fish in the country.  Irish names like Gallagher and Boyles still dominate the phonebook and are prominent on street signs.

The surrounding archipelago offers more exploration, either by dinghy or mothership. You can watch the action at the gull rookery on High Island or take a hike back to the Native American spirit houses on Garden Island.  But no matter your itinerary, the Beaver Island archipelago is a restful classroom for nature and history lessons and should be near the top of the list for freshwater islomaniacs.

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