Myth, mystery, and Midnight Magic evoke childhood adventures on a Lake Michigan charter
We were lost in the woods on Garden Island. The trail we followed from the Native American graveyard had melted into a woodland clearing, leaving us guessing at the path ahead. My brother Xander had even stopped pointing out peculiar vegetation and was instead studying the trail map for clues to our position. Though it was still early in the afternoon, we had a two-hour dinghy ride ahead of us (with both wind and waves building) to return to Beaver Island and Midnight Magic, the Catalina 38 my father, brother, and I had chartered from Bay Breeze Yacht Charters in Traverse City, Michigan.
The cruising grounds out of Traverse City reach south to the Manitou Islands and north to the 14-island Beaver Archipelago. Some people go as far north as Mackinac Island, but this requires ideal winds, long passages, or a two-week vacation. There are, however, plenty of marinas and anchorages within the east and west arms of Grand Traverse Bay and farther north around Charlevoix and Little Traverse Bay for those interested in hugging the coast. Bay Breeze’s base, at the tip of Grand Traverse Bay’s west arm, is ideal for provisioning as well as convenient to the airport and bus station, but it’s almost 30 miles to the main body of Lake Michigan.
We sailed first to Northport, 24 miles north of Traverse, and then 40 miles to Beaver Island, to visit Ken Bruland, my high-school Spanish teacher, who had started a kayaking school on the island—but we would have gone there anyway. The most remote inhabited island in the Great Lakes, Beaver was once the home of James Strang, a Mormon who declared himself king of the 13-mile island and ruled with an iron fist until his assassination in 1856. The Irish, who drove out Strang’s remaining supporters, also had a role in the history of Beaver Island, which they called America’s Emerald Isle. The island, now a popular tourist destination in the summer, offers kayak tours on its inland lakes and to nearby islands, diving and snorkeling among its wrecks and shoals, historic lighthouses, and several museums commemorating its curious history. Approximately 600 year-round residents, mostly of Irish descent, weather out the cold winters.
Beaver Island has two marinas, and the harbormaster at the municipal marina where we docked Midnight Magic was a stereotypical old curmudgeon. With his white beard, fisherman’s cap, and suspenders, he could have passed for a New England whaler.
During our visit, Bruland took us on a tour of the island’s serene inland lakes, which team with wildlife, its sandy beaches, the lighthouse perched on a cliff on the southern end, which affords an expansive view of the lake and far-off islands, and the twisting roads lined with massive trees. Along the way he provided us with some local knowledge and plenty of island gossip. On an island where not waving at passing cars is an act of road rage, everyone knows your name and your business.
Bruland recommended we visit beautiful, isolated Garden Island and explore its graveyard, where over 3,000 Native Americans, mostly Ottawa and Ojibwa, have been buried over the years. The spirit houses, adorned with feathers, coins, and beads, mark recent burial sites and some ancient remains. Our 7-foot draft, however, prevented us from navigating the shallows surrounding the island, so our only option was to bounce along in the inflatable over the choppy waters of the open lake.
I shivered as I read the driftwood sign with hanging feathers at the entrance to the cemetery: “As you enter this cemetery we welcome you. We ask that you treat this sacred area as you would the graves of your own loved ones. Migwetch, thank you.” Walking among the spirit houses and seeing the continuation of a lifestyle that European settlers all but destroyed on this continent gave me a profound feeling of peace and reverence. I was almost afraid to walk through the surrounding forest, pocked with mounds and dips, not knowing whether the remains of long-decayed graves were under foot. I was shaken from this reverie when the trail suddenly disappeared into the forest.
From Beaver Island, a perfect 20-knot northerly took us southeast to Charlevoix, an opulent resort town located on the isthmus between Lake Michigan and Round Lake and spreading out along the shores of Lake Charlevoix. Throughout the week we were blessed with sunshine and consistent winds that were ideal for our ambitious itinerary. We made the 30 miles to Charlevoix in a mere four hours. Even though the GPS guided our approach, we were nearly to the beach before we saw the narrow channel leading to the drawbridge that opens into Round Lake.
Charlevoix is a postcard-perfect town, with all the charm of a Midwest tourist trap. The houses along the lake are grand and lavish, and the boathouses at the water’s edge look like a movie set. Downtown Charlevoix has the usual “old-fashioned” ice-cream parlors, fudge shops, and bakeries. The fish shop on Round Lake, however, is the real deal. Located almost out of sight on a small road, the shop sells a wide variety of locally caught fresh fish as well as a local treat, fish sausage. A rusty old fishing boat sat in the water where it had been unloaded.
Our spot in the Northwest Marina and Yacht Club gave us a great view of the evening races on Lake Charlevoix, which enjoys calmer waters than the open lake but still has plenty of wind. The colorful spinnakers complemented the tranquil scene on the lake, and my dad and I watched the boats come in as the sun went down.
The simplicity of Old Mission Harbor was a nice change from the touristy Charlevoix. After a quiet night at anchor, Xander and I set out in search of an old shipwreck and the Old Mission Lighthouse. When the shady lane along a sun-dappled wood dead-ended in private property, we abandoned our plans for the shipwreck and instead crossed Old Mission Peninsula to find the lighthouse. We walked along several miles of dirt roads, passing orchards, fields, and farmhouses whose pastoral setting belied their proximity to the lake.
There’s now a modern offshore light, but the old lighthouse is still well maintained and serves as the park ranger’s residence. The view from the beach stretching out into the water at Mission Point is spectacular. We watched boats sailing by and children playing in the shallows.
On our way back to Bay Breeze Yacht Charters and our “adult” lives, we had our final adventure. Inside the bay, we anchored at Power Island, whose uninhabited 200 acres are crossed by hiking trails and fringed with beaches. The beach, popular with powerboaters, was crowded and unappealing, but we left civilization behind only five minutes into a trail. The Eagle’s Nest trail winds through maple and beech forest and up a steep incline to a ridgeline trail ending in a spectacular view over the water. This final romp in the woods, reminiscent of so much of our childhood, brought a perfect end to the week’s adventures.
We debriefed over a meal at Sleder’s Tavern. This Traverse City institution is evocative of an old hunting lodge with its wood paneling and stuffed animal heads, a giant moose presiding over them all—and then it was time to head our separate ways.
Why go: Great sailing, a multitude of ports both near and far, beautiful scenery, and friendly locals.
When to go: Charters are available from May to October. Peak season falls during the school holidays, but I find that August and September have the warmest water temperatures, fewer visitors, and the most consistent winds.
Local knowledge: The charter company can provide you with information on anchorages for different wind conditions, but you’ll need to check into a marina (or several) to pump out as dumping is not allowed on the Great Lakes.
Cruising guide: Lakeland Boating’s Lake Michigan Cruising Guide gives detailed information about every harbor on the lake, including names and numbers for marinas, popular restaurants, and local attractions.
Charter company: Bay Breeze Yacht Charters, Traverse City, MI; 877-941-0535, www.bbyc.com. For destinations farther north, Bay Breeze will be opening a new base in Cheboygan, Michigan, this summer.