Summer School on Lake Michigan
by Kevin Walters
I have always known boats and water would play a major role in my life. What I didn’t know was that the more I let those two characters act out, that I would somehow feel fulfillment and yet longing for more all at the same time. The first clash of these two feelings came during the summer of 2010 when my wife and I and our then only two young daughters (ages 5 and 8) capitalized on an opportunity to try cruising beyond a week here and a weekend there. Our kids, boat and budget were all small but our ambition was grand. We hatched a plan to leave our marina life and homeport on Lake Michigan and cruise the Great Lakes. Our ultimate goal was to spend time away from it all in Lake Huron’s North Channel, but as William Crealock, author and a favorite boat designer, once said; “The journey itself should be one of the pleasures of the cruise.” And so, we sailed and grew close as a family, relying on each other for entertainment, comfort, safety, and most of all purpose.
Our itinerary had a beginning location and an ending location, both of which were our homeport of Grand Haven on Lake Michigan’s eastern shore, but the weather and whims of the crew dictated most of the points in between. I was determined to explore the cruising lifestyle and expose my kids and wife to what I hoped would somehow shape their future dreams. As I solo sailed our little 28-foot sloop north on the first two days while the kids finished up school for the summer, I had time for a lot of personal reflection. But it wasn’t until my wife and kids joined me in Frankfort that I really started to grow by watching horizons rise and fall through their eyes. We sailed north through the Manitou islands and the rest of the Beaver Island archipelago like we were Captain James Cook sighting uncharted land on the far side of the world.
Most nights we spent anchored alone in peaceful natural harbors. Days were spent sailing, swimming, hiking, playing games, and singing until the buzzard-sized mosquitoes drove us down into the cabin for the evening. We sailed over 1,000 nautical miles during our 3 month journey and made it as far as Killarney, Ontario in Lake Huron. There were days when each one of us felt lonely, scared, or just plain bored. But those days were far outweighed by the ones where we laughed, loved, and learned.
Much of our big family cruise and many shorter cruises are near the 45th parallel on our sailboat in Lake Michigan. We’ve ventured south in Lake Michigan too, but northern Lake Michigan feels magic. True enough, being approximately halfway between the equator and the North Pole means there aren’t any palm trees or icebergs, but don’t be fooled into thinking “mediocre”, “mundane” or any other term halfway between two extremes describes the cruising opportunities in this region. There are islands to visit, sand dunes to climb, gunkholes to explore, and enough ports-of-call to keep even the most landlubberly crew member happy. As a school teacher and biologist, my wife and I find that we tend to turn Lake Michigan into a giant open air classroom that blesses us with the opportunity to learn important lessons right along side our kids.
For a lesson in social history, we visited Beaver Island on our big family adventure. The island is about 32 miles offshore from Charlevoix, Michigan, so the passage makes for a nice day of sailing in the right weather conditions. Being the most remote inhabited island on all the Great Lakes with a year-round population of 650 people almost guarantees some sort of interesting past, and true to form, Beaver Island is far more intriguing than my 7th grade social studies teacher ever was. The mid-1800’s on Beaver Island saw James Strang, leader of the Mormon church at the time, move to the island with his followers and declare himself polygamist king of the island and church in an elaborate ceremony featuring a crown, royal robe, shield and wooden scepter. He was eventually murdered by disgruntled disciples and the rest of his followers were driven off Beaver Island by residents from other islands in the archipelago. Strang’s strange kingdom was no more, but his actions left a trail of history that my kids and I found fascinating and eerie. We too feel like kings when we cruise together, but of a different kind.
Time for a bit of science? There’s plenty of biology, geology and natural history in the area too. A sail out to South Manitou Island affords some amazing rock collecting opportunities on the low-lying eastern shore. The surf has pounded this shore for hundreds of years, leaving enough flat, smooth granite stones for my daughters and I to have a stone skipping contest until the next ice age arrives. We spent a few wonderfully lonely days exploring the other natural wonders such as the nearby boisterous gull rookery and the treacherous but beautiful camouflage of a yellow sac spider preying on an unsuspecting butterfly among the shoreline flowers. We ventured deep into the interior of South Manitou Island and discovered an abandoned old one room schoolhouse. The girls peered through the dirty windows and imagined what it must have been like to sit in the old wooden desks when school was in session in the 19th century. We found the large crescent-shaped natural harbor on the eastern shore to be the only suitable anchorage, though it’s very deep and only offers protection from N/NW winds. Next time we visit we’ll be sure to check the charts for shipwrecks in the anchorage before dropping the hook. A sneaking suspicion tells me (or maybe that’s the voice of experience?) that those could make for an awful tussle when bringing a fouled anchor back on deck.
Geology lessons abound in all of the Great Lakes, and northern Lake Michigan is no different. When we’re sailing past sand dunes on Lake Michigan’s eastern shore, like those found at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, we often anchor just off the beach and go ashore to experience the fine sand grains between our toes that form the mighty dunes. These aren’t just any dunes however, as some rise 450’ above the lake. As waves cut away the bases of glacial moraine bluffs, an endless supply of sand was given to the wind to continually deposit way on top. The view from on high looking down at our anchored little sloop is impressive, but the real reward for a difficult climb is the wildly fun run and tumble back down. There’s something therapeutic in the thrilling screams of my girls as they race for the cooling water below.
A well-rounded education from this magnificent outdoor classroom also includes something usually reserved only for culinary school. And so, this past summer we sailed our way to Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula to take in a traditional fish boil. We anchored in the small harbor at Fish Creek and went ashore early enough to watch the cooking process and hear a bit about history before we had our meal. Centuries ago, Scandinavian settlers to this area came to harvest timber and other natural resources. As it turns out, those other resources included whitefish from Lake Michigan. The communities of settlers would gather together for fish boils. The process is simple: cut the whitefish into steaks and throw them into a giant kettle along with potatoes and onions and cook to a boil over a wood fire. The boiling process brings the fish oils to the surface of the water, at which time the fire is stoked or fueled to produce a dramatic boil over. What’s left is a steamy good meal harvested mostly from the lake we sailed over on.
I’d be shorting my kids if I didn’t provide them with some practical examples of all the mathematical equations and physics lessons they are taught in their normal school, and so we’ve sailed under the mighty Mackinac Bridge where these lessons are in evidence. They don’t even need to know that this is currently the third longest (5 miles long) suspension bridge in the world, or that the towers reach 552 feet into the sky to understand what an amazing application of numeric magic they are witnessing. Connecting Michigan’s Lower and Upper peninsulas with a structure that has over 100 million crossings in its lifetime and has withstood countless numbers of vicious winter storms is impressive regardless of exact facts and figures. The bridge also serves as the separation of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron on nautical charts, though hydrologically speaking they are one lake joined by the Straits of Mackinac. As our mast slips by beneath the rushing cars I’m always left looking up in awe and smiling as I hear the girls gasp at the optical illusion of our mast hitting the bridge even though there’s well over 100 feet of clearance. I smile too because I’ve realized a childhood dream of sailing under the bridge that I crossed so many times as a passenger in a car.
What about arts and literature, you say? When it’s time for these classes during our summer sailing season, we point the bow towards Little Traverse Bay and the ports within. On the north shore of the bay lays the nicely protected port of Harbor Springs where we can peruse the many art galleries and trinket shops of this cozy lakeside community. Almost directly across the bay is the small city of Petoskey, notable for being the setting of several Nick Adams stories by Ernest Hemingway, who spent his childhood summers in the nearby area. And so, like both Hemingway and his characters, we walk the streets of Petoskey enjoying the “up north” air and the city’s idyll setting on the coast. If we’re lucky, we find some fossilized coral, or Petoskey stones, reminding us that this region wasn’t always just an inland sea of freshwater. Just a short distance down the coast from Petoskey is the affluent resort community of Bay Harbor. For those who can afford it, Bay Harbor offers some of the most exclusive real estate in all of Michigan. For us, we simply enjoy seeing Michigan’s largest collection of megayachts moored peacefully in the ultra-blue harbor. We’re thankful to be able share the same harbors and views from our humble craft.
As moved as I am by the unique geology, biology and both social and natural history of the ports and islands in northern Lake Michigan, I have to admit that our most transcendent moments on the big lake occurred during our first open water crossing, a 72 nautical mile 14-hour overnight passage from Pentwater, Michigan to Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Being on a small sailboat in the darkness of night and out sight of shore for several hours really put cruising into perspective for us. We felt small with the night sky outstretched above us and miles between our bow and any particular landfall. For us to make such a crossing with three young children aboard (we now have a 7-month old daughter too!), we had to know our little ship very well and have confidence in our seamanship and most importantly one another. And while this was the longest continuous sail we’ve made to date and therefore tiring in some respects, part of me was sad to see the Wisconsin shoreline rise on the horizon and know that feelings of being the only boat on the planet were soon coming to an end. These sorts of lessons aren’t taught in traditional classrooms.
Having grown up boating and exploring the waters of Lake Michigan, I can truly say that this great lake has played a major role in shaping who I am, just as the Laurentide glacier carved out her shape some 18,000 years ago. Each spring when our boat is launched, I feel as though I’m a freshman again, walking through the school doors for another season of summer school on Lake Michigan. I’m hoping my kids look back at their time on the Great Lakes with the same appreciation for learning and feeling of fulfillment that I have. This is one school that none of us ever want to graduate from.