We left the hustle and bustle of Charlevoix, Michigan, just in time to make the second drawbridge opening of the morning as we pointed our bow toward Beaver Island, an isolated destination about 32 miles offshore in the middle of northern Lake Michigan.
There was a thick fog, and a light drizzle fell from the sky. Thanks to our chartplotter, I knew our position and the proper heading to the island, but having no radar I remained wary. I knew we were following the approximate route of the Beaver Island 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.
Between the Beaver Island archipelago and the mainland of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula there’s a large area of shoal water 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 depths run 20 feet or less for miles. As an added bonus, you get to see several unique mid-lake lighthouses. The most striking may be the abandoned Waugoshance Lighthouse, which looks like something from the a set of a Hitchcock movie with its rusted metal and crumbling concrete.
Arriving safely in St. James Harbor, we set our anchor and prepared to go ashore and explore. The island is the most remote inhabited island on all the Great Lakes and has a year-round population of 650. Although it is a nature-lover’s paradise, I find its social history even more compelling.
Following the murder in 1844 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 Beaver Island in 1848, where they founded the town of St. James, named after James Strang. Shortly thereafter, Strang declared himself a polygamist and in an elaborate ceremony featuring a crown, a royal robe, a shield and a wooden scepter had himself anointed king of the church and the island.
Strang and his disciples fought frequently with the island’s 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.
Walk the streets of St. James, and you’ll find 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. The Irish immigrants who populated the island after Strang’s death turned it into the largest supplier of freshwater fish in the country, and names like Gallagher and Boyle still dominate the phonebook and are prominent on street signs.
The surrounding archipelago also has lots to explore, either by dinghy or mothership, like the gull rookery on High Island or the Native American spirit houses on Garden Island. No matter what your itinerary, the Beaver Island archipelago is full of interesting nature and history, and should be at the top of your list when cruising Lake Michigan.
Photos by Charles Scott