Getting away from it all on Lake Michigan

Every time my wife Jennifer and I sail to the Beaver Islands, something goes wrong. So why do we keep going there? Initially it was because of where they are, but now it’s because of what they are.First, the “where” part. The Beavers are a dozen islands in northern Lake Michigan, 30 miles from Michigan sailing centers like Mackinac Island, Harbor Springs and Charlevoix.
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Every time my wife Jennifer and I sail to the Beaver Islands, something goes wrong. So why do we keep going there? Initially it was because of where they are, but now it’s because of what they are.

First, the “where” part. The Beavers are a dozen islands in northern Lake Michigan, 30 miles from Michigan sailing centers like Mackinac Island, Harbor Springs and Charlevoix. To the west, it’s a long daysail—60 miles—to Wisconsin’s Green Bay with its quaint towns of Ephraim, Egg Harbor and Fish Creek. Sailors from Chicago and Milwaukee sail past the Beavers en route to Lake Huron’s North Channel. The largest and only inhabited island is Beaver Island itself; the rest are owned and protected by the State of Michigan.

Next, the “what” part. Need to get away? Anchor off the stunning sand beach on High Island for solitude and sunsets. Sneak into the protected harbor of Garden Island and hike to a Native American cemetery. Gunkhole on the outer reaches of Hog Island. Watch lake freighters go by from the seclusion of a deserted lighthouse on Squaw Island. Need a latt and the New York Times? The town of St. James sits in a totally protected harbor on Beaver Island and just may be the coolest waterfront town on all the Great Lakes. Think 1950s: beat-up old cars, dirt roads, and light-off by ten, but with everything cruising sailors need.

We first sailed to the Beavers many years ago on a cruise from Green Bay to Mackinac Island on Georgia, an old Creekmore 37. A squall nailed us en route, churning up huge seas and dislodging decades of gunk in the fuel tank. The engine sputtered as we limped the last few miles into St. James Harbor, feeling exhausted and angry. Adam Anderson at Beaver Island Marina got Georgia going again; he pumped the tank, replaced the filters and bled the engine. St. James got Jennifer and me going again; the white clapboard houses, old fish docks and pealing church bells told us we were in a special place. We couldn’t stay, but we vowed to return.

The next time we came we anchored out at Garden Island and hiked to an Indian cemetery with headstones of tiny birch-bark houses. We basked in a late June sunset and listened to loons, but got our comeuppance at 0200 the next morning when a gale drove Georgia onto the beach. Once again Beaver Island Marina came to our rescue as Adam’s mother, Pat, dispatched a fish tug to tow us off; the only harm was to our pride and our wallet. Back in St. James, we hiked to the local maritime museum and then on to Whiskey Point lighthouse with its poignant memorial to Beaver Island fishermen lost to the lake. We provisioned at McDonough’s Market, a terrific grocery store right on the water, strolled the back streets and learned about the King of Beaver Island.

In 1848 a splinter group of Mormons decided not to follow Brigham Young to Salt Lake and instead joined their charismatic polygamist leader James Jesse Strang on Beaver Island. He was not content just being head of his congregation; he crowned himself king (red robe and all) and ruled the island with an iron fist. Strang was assassinated eight years later and his followers were chased off by a ragtag army from Mackinac Island, mostly Irish fishermen, who coveted Beaver Island for its access to Lake Michigan’s rich fishing grounds.

More immigrants from Ireland arrived and Beaver Island became known as “The Emerald Isle.” Many of the island’s 600 year-round residents are fourth generation Irish, and Beaver Island to this day is the “sister island” to Arran More in County Donegal.

On our next visit on Georgia, we anchored off the two-mile-long beach on High Island, where we could see our anchor 20 feet down in the crystal clear water. High Island has its own religious history; a local cult named The House of David eked out a living there in the early 1900s, but the community failed and woods reclaimed the land. While Jennifer spent two hours at the masthead rereaving our broken jib halyard, a family of trumpeter swans patrolled nearby. The evening silence was punctuated only by the sweet melody of a whippoorwill.

On a short jaunt to St. James the next day, our motor died again and the shifter cable broke as we approached the dock. The ever-capable Adam resurrected the engine while we explored more of the town. I picked up a 1946 edition of Bowditch at a book sale at the library, where we could also go online while sitting in their outside garden. We shared black cherry ice cream cones with the local kids at Daddy Frank’s and sipped Irish coffee on the veranda of the Dalwhinnie Bakery overlooking the harbor. Our planned one-day stopover became two as we set our watches to Island Time.

More recently, Jennifer and I brought our new boat, Catamount, a Caliber 38, to the Beavers for a longer and hopefully more uneventful stay. We enjoyed a sunset beat between Beaver and High Islands, then turned east to power up the narrow channel north of Beaver. But the leprechauns struck again and Catamount’s motor died.

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