Before we finish we we'll have been out on three of the Great Lakes (Huron, Superior, and Michigan), two large island groups (Les Cheneaux and Apostle Islands), and two major connecting routes (Keweenaw Waterway and Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal). This is the narrative of the trip, including the travel, the boating, the towns, the restaurants, and the people.
After several days of frantic preparations, I think I have everything ready for this trip. This is our first expedition into trailer boating, and one thing I have already learned is that there are really four ingredients for success: the boat, the motor, the trailer, and the tow vehicle. I have been working on all four to get them ready for this trip, which will be a long one. We will put almost two thousand miles on the car and trailer, and several hundred on the boat and motor.
The 1976 15-foot Boston Whaler Sport is in great shape, and over the winter I patched and epoxied all the little nicks and gouges it had acquired in the previous twentytwo seasons of use. Aboard we have a nice new ICOM VHF Marine radio, an 8-foot-tall antenna, a depth sounder, a flare and distress signalling kit, binoculars, foul weather gear, life jackets, cushions, an anchor with 120 feet of rope and chain rode, 6-gallon and 12-gallon fuel tanks, a fully charged battery just topped off with distilled water, a bailing bucket, an unapproved marine sanitation device, three dock lines, and sun screen. This old Whaler still looks like new, the varnish on its mahogany seats and console still bright and shiny. When on the trailer, the boat is under a tightly tied heavy canvas cover, and it is ready for both the road and the water.
The 1976 Merc 500 50HP outboard has a new water pump impeller, new spark plugs, and a missing bolt in the water jacket replaced. We've been feeding it a steady diet of premium gas and Quicksilver Premium TC-W3 2-stroke oil, supplemented with an ounce or two of Quicksilver Fuel System Cleaner now and then. The black gloss finish still shines like new. Unlike newer fifties that are often just two cyclinder engines, this is an in-line four. It runs like a fine Swiss watch, starting instantly and running smoothly, even at trolling speeds, and it will push the Whaler, Chris, and me up to about 35 MPH, jumping on a plane without hesitation.
The 1988 Shorelandr SS-16 trailer has new grease and new grease seals in both hubs, a new set of bearings in the right axle, new wheels and tires, and a new winch rope. All of its obstruction, tailight, turnsignal, and license plate lamps are burning and checked, and its plates and registration are good through October. It should be all set to go, despite some rust here and there on its painted frame. (I haven't had the boat off the trailer long enough to work on the rust!)
The glossy black 1993 Ford Crown Victoria LX has 78,000 miles, 14 quarts of fresh transmission fluid flowing through a newly added auxillary cooler, new platinum spark plugs and silicon wires, a fresh oil change, and a recently flushed radiator, now filled with 70% water and 30% glycol for maximum cooling capacity in summertime temperatures. (You don't need protection to thirty below in August, and water has more cooling capacity than anti-freeze.). Tire inflation is set to the specified pressures: car front, 30 pounds; car rear, 34 pounds; trailer, 50 pounds. Under the hood the 210-horsepower overhead cam V-8 tows the 1400 pound boat/motor/trailer combination without straining. The R-12 refrigerant air conditioning works great. The 'Vic doesn't leak a drop of oil, water, or any other fluid. Except for the red pinstripes, the tan leather interior, the polished aluminum wheels with the big Michelin tires, and the missing spot light, it looks a lot like your local police cruiser.
In the trunk we've got spare oil, water, and transmission fluid for the car, a spare set of bearings and a spare tire for the trailer, extra sparkplugs, grease, lubricants, and TC-W3 Quicksilver 2-Cycle oil for the outboard, a hydraulic jack for the trailer axle, a big socket wrench for loosening lug nuts overtightened by impact wrenches, and a complete set of hand tools that weighs in at around 65 pounds.
Everything else we need, the clothes, cooler, camera, and collateral crap, is stacked in the back seat. My wife Chris is in the front, with me. I've got my sunglasses on, I've got couple of hundred bucks in my wallet, I'm on vacation, and I'm ready to roll.
About half past eight, we finally pull out of the driveway and head for I-75 northbound. By starting on a Monday, the traffic to the northern resort areas is a little lighter. Also by waiting, we've had the use of all of Saturday and Sunday for preparation, which we needed. The weather is cloudy, the temperatures cool. That is just fine for travelling. The water temperature gauge on the car is running at the same mark it always does, indicating the load of the trailer is not much of a burden.
By one in the afternoon, we are two hundred miles north and pulling into Gaylord, Michigan for lunch at our favorite spot, The Sugar Bowl Restaurant. This place has been around for decades. Both Chris and I recall stopping there as kids with our parents. Having lunch there has become part of our northern Michigan vacation ritual.
"I love my coffee from a china cup and saucer," says Chris. I remember tablecloths, too, but for lunch we are eating on paper place mats. Oh well, it is the 90's.
Back on the road, we are just an hour south of the Mackinaw Bridge. As we crest every hill, I search the horizon ahead for its lovely ivory towers. The skies have cleared, and we are enjoying the sunshine. Soon we are crossing the straits and marvelling once again at the size of the span, the color of the water, our height above the waves, and the beauty of the whole scene.
After paying the modest toll, we pull into the information center. They have a great scale model of the bridge there, along with a whole library of information on travel and destinations. Soon we are back on the highway, bypassing St. Ignace and heading for Hessel.
Rolling into Hessel around four, we turn off the highway and descend to the water. Hessel has been a commercial and recreational boating harbor since the turn of the century. Around that same time, E. J. Mertaugh started a boatworks in town. In 1938 he built a nice home across the street from his harborside business. In the summer of the 1998 that same home is now The Boatworks Bed and Breakfast, where we have a reservation for two nights.
Hessel is the westernmost harbor in the area and the last port before the Straits of Mackinaw. It guards the entrance to the waterway and looks out onto Lake Huron from the lee of Marquette Island. As you often find in Michigan, an excellent small boat harbor has been constructed, and it provides the community with a focal point. There is a paved ramp for launching--they only charge a buck--boat slips for seasonal and transient dockage, and a nice pier and seawall that boatless anglers can fish. To the south are the Les Cheneaux Islands, or as the locals call them, "The Snows." In a regular northwest to southeast orientation, a series of long, thin, overlapping islands lie just offshore of the Upper Peninsula, creating a chain of protected waterways and canals that provides miles of opportunities for small craft boating.
On the eastern side of the harbor, the most prominent structure in Hessel is the store and boat sheds of E. J. Mertaugh Boatworks. Mr. Mertaugh was quite a sharp business man. When Chris-Craft began producing boats in the 1920's down in Algonac, he became their first dealer. In the miles of protected waterways of the Les Cheneaux islands and their hundreds of cottages and homes, he had the perfect wealthy clientele for buying those beautiful mahogany runabouts. In the 1990's, it is THE place for vintage Chris-Crafts. Scanning the shelves of the store, you see items like sets of pistons and other parts from old original Chris-Craft engines, not exactly the sort of thing you'd find in the West Marine catalog.
The E.J. Mertaugh Boatworks, Hessel, Michigan.
Boatworks Bed and Breakfast, built in 1938, Hessel, Michigan
In the 1950's Mertaugh added Boston Whaler to the showroom, another line of boats destined to become classics. Practically every cottage or island home around here has one, and some have two. It's the perfect boat for running over to get some groceries or going fishing. Perhaps it was a little too perfect, for the Whaler doesn't need as much tender loving (and expensive) care as does a vintage wooden Chris-Craft. From the look of things, almost every one that was sold is still afloat, as Whalers are everywhere up here.
As a result of Mr. Mertaugh's success, visiting Hessel and the Les Cheneaux islands is like turning the pages of the Chris-Craft and Boston Whaler catalogues for the past 40-70 years. You can see just about every model, size, and year of boats these two fine boat builders ever made. Even though the current Whalers are now mostly gelcoat, the ones you see up here have plenty of varnished mahogany on them, putting them right at home with all those vintage Chris-Craft runabouts.
And as for varnished wood, the Boatyard Bed and Breakfast fits nicely into the picture. The upper level of the place is finished like the deck of an old runabout. The floor, doors, and mouldings are all stained mahogany and varnished to a high gloss yacht finish. There are four bedrooms and a common bath on the second floor, just up the big central staircase from the front entrance hall. In the living and sitting rooms, recent issues of dozens of boating magazines are available for reading from comfortable chairs. To make things even better, we have the whole place to ourselves; we're the only guest tonight and tomorrow, and the owners spend their summer nights at their island cottage.
Before we even unload the luggage from the car, I have the boat ready to launch. She slides off the trailer and into the clear waters of Lake Huron for the first time. The 22-year-old Mercury outboard fires right up, and I run the Whaler over to a courtesy slip along the inner harbor wall. After seven hours in the car, I can't wait to go boating.
Locally provided buoyage, like this well marked passage between Wilderness Bay and Marquette Bay, makes navigation much easier in the Les Cheneaux Islands.
The breeze is coming from the southwest, producing quite a flow into the main channel. We head downwind toward the islands. This is the perfect water for our boat. It's protected so there are no big waves, yet you can go somewhere on it. There are miles of passages ahead of us, all well marked and charted on the NOAA Chart, and augmented with dozens of locally maintained aids, which alert you to detached shoals or point out little canals you can use as shortcuts. I've never seen so much local buoyage before. We get about two miles down before we get lost off the main channel. It's time to get back for dinner, anyways. We'll resume tomorrow.
Our boating jag settled by the short cruise, we strike out via car in search of dinner. Chris recalls a nice restaurant in Cedarville, about five miles down the road. We have dinner at The Channel Marker, a bar and restaurant on the mainland side of the channel. They have a dock and finger piers for guest arriving by boat. We get an outdoor table and have the whitefish special.
The day dawns with a tint of red in the sky. There are some clouds blowing in from the Northwest. We've left the Whaler in the water at Mertaugh's gas dock, a little perk that comes with staying at the bed and breakfast. The boat is just a few feet from the front door. This is a great set up! We have breakfast at the Hessel Bay Inn, using the meal voucher/coupon that comes with the B & B. This turns out to be a little bit of an experience. Our waitress is an Asian woman. Whenever we ask her a question about the menu, she responds in a English so accented that we are completely without understanding. Trusting that scrambled eggs are scrambled eggs everywhere, we simplify our order. Afterward, Chris packs a picnic lunch, and then we are off on a boat cruise through the islands.
No, this is not the cottage, this is just the boathouse!
Les Cheneaux Islands, Lake Huron.
We motor several miles down the waterway, past Cedarville, past Government Bay, and poke our nose out into Lake Huron. About a half-mile offshore, we decide these waters are too big for our Whaler, and we return to the shelter of the inland route. Working our way eastward, we motor slowly along the shores, checking out the homes and cottages and the array of boats and boathouses in front of them.
Around two o'clock, we pass a public boat launch ramp where some fishermen are hauling out. "I hope you brought your raingear," one of them yells to us as we glide past their dock. The sky does look more threatening, and we decide perhaps we ought to retreat.
We retreat, at high speed. With the little boat up on plane, we can do about 35 MPH across the water. We are rapidly retracing our path back to Hessel. The last quarter mile, against the wind and the larger waves from the lake, a little rain starts to fall. As we make the marina and secure the boat, we are just in time to avoid an early afternoon shower.
We end up eating the picnic lunch at the house. After the showers pass, I while away the afternoon looking at all the boats around the boatyard, many of them wooden, classic, and quite beautiful.
The location for dinner is undecided, but we get an early start and head via car for The Snows Bar and Grill that we saw from the waterway. Its parking lot is filled with pickup trucks and the only room open for service is the smokey bar portion. The patrons look like mostly local men having a beer on their way home from work. Their tables are filled with Bud bottles. We decide to try elsewhere. Next up is a restaurant on the highway, but its dining room is too hot and too smokey, too. Finally, we return to Hessel and settle on a little bar just up the road from the Marina. It will be a beer and burger for dinner tonight. Again, the presence of pickup trucks foretells a clientele of local working men. They all sit in the back, we sit by the window.
"We can get a hamburger here," I ask the waitress.
"Oh, I guess you can. I just put everything away, but I can get it back out for you," she replies. It is only about five minutes past six o'clock in the evening. I guess the dinner trade dines early in Hessel.
The sun has come back for our after-dinner cruise, and this time we turn off the main channel to explore some back bays. We find the nice facilities of the Les Cheneaux Yacht Club, on the south side of Marquette Island's Pleasant Point. "Look at that cloud," I say to Chris, "I'll have to take a picture of that; it is so unusual." A few minutes later we are drenched to the bone in the downpour issuing from the cloud.
People are fishing for and catching perch off the outer seawall until dark, which comes past 10 p.m. at this time of year and this far north. The lure of outstanding perch fishing was the main attraction for many visitors to this area, stretching back to the 1900's. But lately the perch fishery has declined, and so, it seems, has the tourism. As a result, the region gives one the impression it is slightly past its prime. There are some closed businesses and restaurants, and some others that seem to be serving a strictly local trade. One impediment to more good restaurants, we deduce, must be the location of so many of the nicer cottages on islands. There is no car access from most of those islands, isolating a shore side restaurant from many of its best prospective customers.
This old structure stands sentinel on a lonely point,
exposed to the open lake.
NW point of Long Island
The weather seems to have stabilized into warm sunshine, so we are in no rush to leave the Les Cheneaux area. We take a morning cruise, this time to the west and south of Hessel, exploring more shoreline and cottage country. On a lonely and rocky point a fort-like structure stands shuttered against the waves and weather. The whole building has a slight tilt to it, no doubt brought on by winter ice pressure.
The residents in this area have outdone themselves with local buoys. Many little shoals and detached rocks are marked, making it much easier for us to move around. We do keep an eye on the depth sounder, though, and also glance over the side through the clear water to gauge the depths as well.
By noon we have returned, hauled the boat out, loaded up the car, had lunch (pasties) and settled the bill with the Boatworks. We are on the road for Munising, but first heading back to St. Ignace to permit us to take the scenic route along Lake Michigan's north shore. Before leaving, we stock up on the products of The Hessel Bakery. This establishment is the place to shop for pastry, pasties, cookies, and sticky buns. Don't miss it. I'd eat three meals a day there when in Hessel.
We exit the interstate and turn west on Route 2. The roadside assaults us with signs advertising "FUDGE PASTIES SMOKED FISH." This is a theme for the first few miles west from the bridge, a theme soon elaborated upon by grocery stores with wild animals. No good grocer in the Upper Peninsula, it seems, would attempt to market his foodstuffs without the presence of a live bear or two to attract the passing motorist. If not bears, then deer or elk will do, too. This is the Upper Peninsula of my boyhood, preserved just as I remember it. THE MYSTERY SPOT appears, seemingly a little closer to St. Ignace than I recalled as a boy, for we did not see the long sequence of roadside markers announcing the miles-to-go until you arrived. Perhaps the magic has migrated east a little.
Westward we drive, ironically experiencing the best weather so far as we are stuck in the car. The miles click past. We roll through Naubinway, a town where I spent a few weeks for some summers as a boy. I can't recognize the old road to the cottage. Then the shore curves away from the road, and we are inland. The small towns we drive through are amazing to us.
"This looks," remarks Chris of one of the smaller and more out of the way places along the route, "like a place you'd go if you just escaped from prison and didn't want anyone to find you." Her glibness becomes irony as we pass signs that warn "Don't pick up Hitchhikers--Prison Area." The more remote the area, the more frequent the sign. Prisons, it seems, are a growth industry for the UP. Maybe these little towns are not the best place for escaped prisoners to hide.
Munising and Grand Island
Adapted from NOAA 14960
By three we have arrived in Munising and located our new quarters, The Sunset Motel. The accommodations look good, and we are off for the boat ramp where we can launch and retrieve for $2. We get under way just as the 4 p.m. sailing of the "sunken wrecks boat tour" is leaving, so we take advantage of their courseline to lead us to the sights in Murray Bay on the south side of Grand Island. Soon we are drifting over the top of a huge and magnificent wreck. A perfectly preserved 150 foot ship lies about 8-10 feet below the water, sunk for decades in about 25-30 feet of water.
The wind is from the northwest, blowing briskly at 10-15 knots, so that even the lee side of Grand Island is a little choppy. The lake side, that's the Lake Superior side, is too rough for us this evening. We cruise the calm water along the beach in Murray Bay, finding four groups making camp along the shore, and a half dozen boats at anchor, including the extremely lovely cruiser "Bellatrix" from Wisconsin. Her foremast flies the triple trident pennant of a U.S. Power Squadron Squadron Commander. It looks like an experienced boater is cruising along Superior's southern shore. We head back to the ramp, where we haul the boat and trailer it back to the motel.
Once again Chris has done an excellent job of picking our motel from the guidebook. She has read between the lines and found the best place in town. The Sunset is well named. Facing west, it provides its occupants with a nightly sunset experience that is the best in Munising. And sheltered by Grand Island, they have a sandy lakefront for swimming, and even a dock for keeping a small boat on a calm day. The room has its own refrigerator, there are plenty of outdoor grills for cooking, and there's even a shuffleboard court. The presence of a shuffleboard court used to be part of the definition of motel in northern Michigan back in the 1950's. More important to us, there is plenty of room to park the boat and trailer.
The guests of the Sunset Motel are provided with discount coupons for dinning in Munising. Being frugal boaters, we head off, coupon in hand, toward The Navigator Restaurant. It's a warm afternoon in Munising, with the temperature in the mid to high 80's. The air conditioning, seldom asked to perform under these conditions, is, nevertheless, up to the task, and the nautical interior of the restaurant is quite comfortable. So is the food. We try the evening's special, whitefish (did you guess?), supplemented with soup and salad bar. The soup choices tonight include "Italian Wedding Soup," quite tasty and requiring a second cup. In all it's a bargain at $8.95, made even more so with the discount coupon from the motel.
As dinner winds down, we strike up a conversation with a local fellow at the adjoining table. He's wearing a University of Michigan Wolverines football tie, and he looks like he might have been a lineman in the Big Ten himself. He and his wife are teachers, once having been in the employ of the Detroit and Royal Oak School Systems, but now enjoying life much more in Munising. They even have three of their four kids living and working in the area. The youngest daughter has gotten away, working downstate in Royal Oak, but they'll "get her back here someday." He tells us of the history of Grand Island, including an old hotel, originally a posh resort built by the Cleveland Cliff Company for entertaining their executives. Now most of the island has been made into a National Park, and the old hotel was first "vandalized by snow-mobilers, then torn down by the Seven-Day Adventists."
After dinner we walk along the marina piers. Despite the excellent shelter created by both by the offshore island and the breakwater, there are few boats in the marina, and most of them locals. I don't think too many sailors make Munising a port of call.
Miners Castle, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
This morning the weather is still fair, and the winds are still strong. We gauge the wave heights with binoculars from the lawn chairs of the motel. The regular appearance of whitecaps discourages us from boating this morning. And that's in the lee of Grand Island.
We had hoped to be able to visit the Pictured Rocks Lakeshore via boat, but this morning is not the right one to try for us. Instead, we drive out in the car. Along the way is another grocery store with zoo, including a bear whose cage includes a small sign "MAUDE THE BEAR FUDGE BEER FILM IN STORE."
The nearest of the Pictured Rocks, Miners Castle, is the one I visited as a boy. Back then, in the late 1950's, you could, if you were crazy enough, climb right out on it. Now, thankfully, there is a boardwalk that takes you close-by, but saves the rock formation from the erosion of thousands of teenaged boys' rock climbing instincts. There is also an overlook, which, from mid-morning to evening sun, gives you an excellent view of the rocks.
A northwest breeze stirs up Lake Superior at Miners Beach.
On the horizon is Grand Island.
We drive down to the lowland to the east, Miners Beach, where a mile or two of sand beach is receiving Lake Superior's whitecaps this morning. One hundred feet offshore, a family in a 16-17 foot boat is having some difficulty. They must have beached their boat, and they are now attempting to launch it into the surf, aided by one of their passengers who is walking it out to sufficient depth to engage the engine. At that point, the skipper lowers the outboard motor enough to get the prop in the water, while the burly passenger tries to haul himself aboard, inches from the turning propeller. Fortunately, we are not witnesses to a tragedy, and the boat, passenger safely back aboard, hauls off slowly to windward in the big waves. This episode reaffirms the decision to leave our boat on the trailer.
On the way back to town, we stop at the old Coast Guard Station for a tour. They had/have a 44-foot Motor Life Boat on a marine railway. The station was abandoned in 1961, and in the 37 years since the shoreline of Lake Superior has moved about 500 feet away from the station, leaving the boat, docks, and railway rather high and dry. This is just the first of many closed down Coast Guard facilities we will see on this trip, and it brings up the issue of government services. How come, back in the 1950's when federal taxes amounted to only a few percent of your income, the government was able to fund and provide all these wonderful services. They built lighthouses and lifeboat stations, and manned them, and maintained them. Now, with taxes at a level five to ten times what they were back then, the government is closing everything down and turning it over to the locals for museums. What gives? Wherever that money is going today, it sure isn't into Coast Guard stations, it seems.
After lunch we are awaiting the lull in the wind that we know must be coming. When in the late afternoon it abates just a bit, we re-float our boat from the ramp, and head out for the open lake. As we begin to round the eastern side of Grand Island, the waves build, until as we carry past the Sand Point buoy, we are once again in seas that make us uncomfortable. It is not that we can't make way against them or that we are taking on water, but the ride is not comfortable, and this is, after all, Lake Superior we are sailing on. So we decide to stick with the lee side of the island again.
This takes us back to Murray Bay, and a second pass over the sunken ship, called the Bermuda by the locals, although there seems to be some dispute over her name. The water over the wreck is clear and the huge ship easily visible. It would make a great spot for a beginning diver to explore. The water even seems warm, especially by Upper Peninsula standards.
Finally, we have exhausted our options for sheltered water courses, so we take one final stab at going out to the Pictured Rocks. The waves are a little lower, but then I realize that it is quite late and all the big tour boats have stopped running for the day. If we do go out, we'll be the only boat out there. With our single engine, and the late hour, we decide that the waves are still too big for a prudent captain to venture into. Thus we return to the ramp, and haul the boat. The weather has dealt us all discards this time; the Pictured Rocks will have to wait for another day.
Driving back through Munising for about the forth time--the ramp is a mile west of downtown and the motel a mile east--I notice that there isn't even a stoplight in town. Munising is not exactly a hub of commerce in the Upper Peninsula. The state of the economy here is signalled by a closed down Real Estate Office which has a FOR SALE sign on it from another realtor. We do get a chuckle from the parking lot at the Kimberly-Clark paper mill: it is filled almost exclusively with pickup trucks.
With the boat hitched up to the Crown Vic, we get underway westward, stopping at the gas station to fill up. The only pump lane available for our long car-trailer combo is the "Full Service" pump, but the attendant lets me pump my own gas, then refigures the price for me at the cheaper self-service rate. Try that in Detroit.
One business that seems to succeed in these smaller towns is the auto parts store. The most prosperous retailer in all of Munising looks to be the NAPA Auto Parts. I don't think I've ever seen a nicer auto parts store. Fixing your own car...err, pickup, must be a way of life up here. Anyone who can't fix their own car would probably freeze to death in the winters, anyways.
Cresting the big hill to the west of town, we see the large Seventh Day Adventist Church (of hotel demolition fame). Rolling westward along the shores of Lake Superior, we pass through Christmas, Michigan. I bet the Postmaster has the best job in that town. One well-advertised item for sale along the road is beer. Competition has driven the price of a 30-pack of Budweiser down to just $10.95.
Soon the lake pulls away from the road. The terrain becomes so rough along here that there is no shoreline highway shown on the map for a big stretch of the coastline. We cross innumerable small creeks and rivers flowing down to the lake, with self-descriptive names like Sand Creek, Muddy Creek, Sturgeon Creek, Laughing Whitefish Creek, Red Creek. Then we're quickly through Marquette, a big city in UP terms but not on our itinerary this trip. We continue inland and upland, crossing south of a segment of the UP that contains the highest point in the state. The highway is quite different than those in the gently rolling plains of the lower peninsula; you'd almost think you were in Colorado for a moment.
Soon we are descending back to lake level as the road runs along the shore of Keweenaw Bay. North along the coast we wind, until we turn inland at the Keweenaw Waterway. This is a revelation to me. I never noticed this before, but the Keweenaw Peninsula is really an island! It is entirely cut off from the UP by Portage Lake, Portage River and the Keweenaw Waterway. The only bridge to cross the waterway is in Houghton, about 10 miles inland from either end. So if you want to get out on the Keweenaw, you've got to drive through Houghton and Hancock. Perhaps this accounts for the extremely wild and aggressive driving patterns in those cities? We are just about to get a first hand introduction.
Having gotten an early start from Munising, we are approaching downtown Houghton just after noon, somewhat tired from the drive and hungry. The towns of Houghton and Hancock lie on opposite sides of the waterway, built into the very steep hills that descend from several hundred feet down to lake level at the water. This makes driving in them more like driving in San Francisco than anywhere else in the midwest. To ease the traffic in Houghton, they have divided the main thoroughfare into two one-way streets, going mainly westbound on the lower street, and returning eastbound one block south and one hundred feet higher.
As we enter the downtown, still towing our boat behind us, we are completely unaware of this. The road that we've been on for the last two hundred miles has been a two lane, two-way road. As we enter the downtown, it jogs to the right, and unknown to us and not announced by any sign, it becomes a one-way street. Right at that point, there is a Burger King on the left hand side of the street. With our sensibilities overwhelmed with hunger, we decide on the spot that it will be our lunch destination. I slow the car to see if I can negotiate the entrance and drive-thru with the trailer attached. It looks good. Since I am still thinking I am on a two-way street, I check ahead for on-coming traffic. There is none. (Of course, it's a one-way!). I put my turn signal on and begin a slow left turn into the driveway.
Brakes squeal, horns blows, and a small, boxy sub-compact car (in Detroit we call them "sh*t-boxes") driven by a young college student blows by me on the left, swerving madly farther to the left to avoid hitting me. Wow! Adrenalin pumps. Where the hell did he come from? Ahead and to the left I suddenly see some parked cars in the next block. "Oh God! It's a One-Way," I deduce. We pull back into our lane and slowly cruise the downtown, looking for a place to turn back and find our motel. Eating is out of the question at this point. Our stomachs are in our throats!
Where that other car came from becomes apparent when we do finally turn around at the other end of downtown Houghton. Taking the eastbound street back to where we were, I see how it terminates in a downhill loop that allows you to merge with the traffic coming into town from the east. The steep grade tends to accelerate your car to 40 MPH as you merge into the newly one-way section of the street. All this occurs a few feet in front of the Burger King.
Finally, we navigate to the motel, the SUPER-8 right on the water in Houghton, just east of the bridge. The place is packed for the weekend with former residents returning for a big High School Reunion. We end up getting a room on the first floor, right off the lobby, equipped with 100% handicap access (including mirrors you have to bend over to see yourself in), and with a window that opens on the parking lot. This will be our worst room of the trip. If it had been one of the rooms on the second floor, facing the river, at the end of the corridor away from the lobby, and not dimensioned for someone in a wheelchair, it would have been one of the best. On the bright side, the motel is right next to ten city marina docks, all of which are empty and where we can keep our boat overnight for free. And should those be full, the motel has a few docks of its own for use by guests, plus plenty of parking for your trailer.
The day is beautiful. The skies are blue with fair-weather clouds, and it is warm. Too warm to stay on land. We quickly unpack the car and head for the boat launch. The better of the launch facilities is on the Hancock side of the river, so we have to negotiate the downtown traffic and the bridge. Forewarned and forearmed, we are able to cope with the aggressive driving of the locals a little better this trip, but we are truly amazed by it. "It looks like the Grand Prix of Keweenaw out there," I say to Chris.
The boat launch is just a buck, and we have the Whaler on the water in a few minutes. There is no hurry; there's no line at the ramp. We repeat our ritual of loading the boat from the car trunk: cushions, cooler, jackets, sun screen, radio, depthsounder, life jackets, everything is tossed in the boat. We don't keep all this loose stuff aboard the boat because, like the typical downstate urban people that we are, we are paranoid about someone stealing it from the boat while it sits in the parking lot or dock overnight.
Adapted from NOAA 14960
In a few minutes we are out on the water. The hunger we had an hour ago when we first arrived has returned. I pilot Chris back across the waterway to the Houghton side, dropping her off at a commercial dock where she scrambles up to go find a carryout lunch in town. Then I zip down the river to retrieve something we forgot back at the hotel. A few minutes later we reunite, finally ready to cruise the Keweenaw Waterway.
The old stamp mill of the Quincy Mine, where copper was smelted for decades
We take the western end first, since tomorrow we'll have the whole day to explore the longer eastern side. The first sight that grabs our attention is a huge old mill works along the riverfront on the Hancock side. This intact collection of rusting iron and steel was the smelter for the Quincy copper mine. In mining terms it was known as a stamp mill, and the residue from smelting the copper was stamp sand, a blackish earth that is piled everywhere along the shores in this region.
The old works looks like it is ready to become the set for a movie about mining in the 1890's, it is so complete with buildings, streets, signs, and details.
The Houghton Lift Bridge, shown partially up to allow a sailboat to transit
The next attraction on the waterway is the Houghton-Hancock lift bridge. The central span of the double-deck bridge can be lifted vertically straight up to permit vessels to pass under it, providing up to 103 feet of clearance. It appears to originally have been constructed with a railroad line on the lower deck and the highway on the upper. Now, to increase the clearance available for vessel passage when "closed", the center span has been raised to align its lower deck with the upper or highway deck of the two sides. This provides over thirty feet of clearance, and reduces the number of "openings" or raises that would disrupt highway traffic flow across the bridge. They do have to raise the bridge for sailboats that wish to transit, which the obligingly do for an eastbound sailboat.
Keweenaw Upper Entrance Light,
82 feet above the water,
is shown from a white square tower
on the outer end of the E breakwater
at the Lake Superior entrance
to the Keweenaw Waterway.
West from Houghton, the waterway becomes less industrial and its shores fill with nice homes and cottages. Fishermen and water skiers ply the small waves of this protected passage. The central channel has been dredged to a depth of 23 feet, and large buoys and lighted ranges remind you that this route is intended for large ships as well as small. Several miles westward the natural waterway ends at Lily Pond. Somewhere back in the way-back, the passage was extended all the way to Lake Superior, and this ruler-straight man-made segment is sustained by steel sea walls and revetments. The perfectly parallel walls make for rough and confused seas for a few miles, as boat wakes rebound endlessly back and forth across the narrow canal. The western end opens into a large protected harbor of refuge, blocked from Lake Superior waves by breakwalls that converge a half mile offshore. We motor all the way to the end, including a brief exit into Lake Superior to photograph the entrance light. Again, the waves on the big lake are too much for our 15-footer, although we do see other recreational boats heading out or returning from fishing and sailing.
Inside the breakwater at the head of the canal there is another closed down Coast Guard station. It appears to have had a marine railway for launching a 44-footer. Despite signs proclaiming "NO TRESPASSING GOVERNMENT PROPERTY" and advising you of dire consequences for violation, the boathouse door has been opened. It looks like locals have stopped in for a visit since the Coasties left. There is a strong temptation to take a look around ourselves, but Chris admonishes me, and I refrain. The property is in use. There is a recently constructed antenna and transmitting site for the Differential Global Positioning Satellite navigation system (DGPS), providing receivers in the region with positional data accurate to a foot or two in three dimensions.
Retracing our path back to Houghton, we tie our boat to one of the city docks. We have a little problem with the finger piers. Probably due to the high ice levels in winter, the rub rails of the finger pier docks are about three feet off the water, too high to be of any use to our low sided boat. Fortunately, one of the docks has been augmented with some lower rub rails, and we are able to tie up without grinding our gelcoat against the steel of the docks.
After a refreshing shower and change of clothes, we cool off in the shade on the motel's patio. In conversation with some of the other guests, I learn they are in town for the big reunion. I chat with two men--strangers to each other--with almost identical backgrounds. They grew up in Houghton/Hancock, went on to university at Michigan Tech, studied civil engineering, and took jobs with big construction companies engaged in engineering and building roads. As the interstate highway road construction boom moved westward, they did too, ending up in places like South Dakota.
As the dinner hour approaches, the pool of conversationalists on the patio drains, as does the beer in my glass. Next, we are out on the town looking for dinner. Houghton has quite a bit of ethnic food available, perhaps influenced by the presence of the many students at Michigan Technological University, just east of our motel and itself an imposing presence on the waterway. We settle on Mexican food for dinner, and we have a delicious meal at Los Dos Amigos, on a steeply slanted Huron street north from the main drag toward the water. They make a mean Margarita; one big frozen lime one sends Chris on her ear.
After dinner we stroll the downtown sidewalks. Houghton is an attractive city. It looks like it has never torn down a building. Almost all the businesses along the main street appear to be housed in sandstone edifices built in the 1890's. Back then, the mining industry created plenty of employers and employees, --60,000 people lived in the county then--resulting in the commerce that built all these buildings. These days, it is probably the university that keeps them going.
Back at the motel, we can't resist the temptation of an evening cruise. Our boat is sitting right in front of us at the dock. We take a short trip to the east, discovering a little yacht club with sailboats on moorings. We don't go too far, however; we want to save something for tomorrow. On these days when we have been driving to a new location, moving into a new place, launching the boat, and getting out on the water, we tend to turn in early. We are off to sleep before ten o'clock. The Margaritas might have had some effect, too. At 4 a.m., a reunion reveller returns to the motel. Of course, the only parking space is the one outside our open widow--the handicapped parking space! "What time do the bars close up here," I wonder aloud.
The weather is really cooperating today. It is warm and sunny and there's not much wind. We load the boat up, putting plenty of ice in the cooler, and take to the water for relief from the heat.
Eastward from Houghton, the waterway opens to a width of two miles or more and forms Portage Lake. We prowl down its western shore, stealing a look at the homes and cottages that fill the banks. At the southern end, the lake shoals into Pike Bay. I can't resist the lure of a big northern, and we slow down while I troll a big Johnson Silver Minnow spoon behind us. It is just as well that we don't catch anything. A big pike would get the entire boat slimy.
Keweenaw Waterway Lower Entrance Light, 68 feet above the water,
is shown from a white octagonal tower on the outer end of the breakwater
on the E side of the Keweenaw Bay entrance to the waterway; a fog signal and
radiobeacon are at the light
Retracing our course out of Pike Bay, we follow the buoyed channel down to Keweenaw Bay. Again, at the end of the route we find another Coast Guard station, this one closed down and its land for sale. The wind is light and there are literally no waves at all on the bay, so we head out into the big water. Of course, we take the required photograph of the light at the end of the breakwater. The water here is so clear and undisturbed that you can easily see small features on the bottom at depths of more than 20 feet. We just drift along, eating our lunch and enjoying the view for half an hour. As any good boater or fisherman knows, the principal ingredients of lunch aboard a small boat are beer and potato chips, and we have plenty of those.
We've come more than ten miles down from our motel, and now we begin the return trip, which will be made even longer by a detour into Torch Lake. Following the eastern and northern shoreline, we return to Portage Lake. The shores are filled with homes of every size and shape. From trailers parked on an uncleared lot to huge elaborate new homes with golf course lawns, people of all degrees of income are able to access the waterfront.
We enter the Torch Lake Canal, a buoyed passage with about 20 feet of water. Several miles later we enter Torch Lake. Its western shores are filled with immense deposits of black stamp sand. We take a break at a little marina, where we have a chat with a local fellow while we stretch our legs. He's just trying out a new boat be bought. It's a 1960's blue fiberglass I/O runabout that he paid $200 for. It had been briefly on the bottom, but he has the 4-cyclinder Mercruiser engine running (quite well), and he's restored the shine to her deck and hull.
"Heck, he says, "the trailer was worth $200." And I thought I got a bargain when I bought this Whaler!
It is a really hot afternoon, with bright sun, and it requires plenty of sun screen to be able to stay out. The one item I didn't get done on my list of things for the boat was the bimini cover. It would have been useful today. We get back on the water and leave the rest of Torch Lake unexplored. It looks like there are more old mining operations along its shores.
We continue back toward Houghton, finding for a change a brand new Coast Guard Station on the north shore of Portage Lake. I call the base on the radio to inquire about its age, since it is not shown on the chart I have, a 1997 Edition. On Channel 22-A the radio operator tells us that they just opened the place this year. Okay, that explains the other two closed stations. I guess the Coast Guard consolidated their operation into one station in the middle of the waterway, instead of two, one at each end. The new place is an attractive building, too. It must have cost a few tax-dollars to build.
Finally, after all day on the water and burning a record 11 gallons of gas in the Whaler, we are back to the Hancock marina. We haul the boat and rig it for the highway. The Keweenaw Waterway has been a delight for us, but it is time to move on.
Chris opts for more ethnic food for dinner, and we have a great meal-- I mean a great meal by big city standards and not by boat or UP standards-- at the Ming Garden Restaurant just south and west of Houghton on (Michigan) Route-26. The dining room is beautiful, with a very high ceiling and clerestory windows. The menu is ambitious, with a hundred or more selections. It is quite a surprise to find in a town the size of Houghton, and even more so in the remote Keweenaw Peninsula.
After dinner we drive out to the state park and watch the sunset. The lake bed and pebble beach are filled with red sandstone, which explains the appearance of it in most of the older buildings in the region. Back at the SUPER-8, we close the window and turn on the air conditioner, assuring an uninterrupted night's sleep.
By 7 a.m. we are up and on the road, heading into extreme western Michigan, a part of the state, like Houghton, we have never seen before. The roads up here have been quite good. Really, the highway has been fine all along our trip from Birmingham. Except for a few terrible spots in some of the big cities like Detroit, it looks to me like Michigan's roads are not the "disaster" that Democratic politicians are trying to make them in this election year. The road surface has a noticeable red tint to it. Perhaps the UP's recipe for asphalt includes some old mine ore thrown in for fill.
At some point, a roadside sign declares we have entered the Central Time Zone. It is a good thing, otherwise darkness would not be arriving until 10:30 p.m. in these parts of Michigan. We set the car clock back an hour, but we leave our wrist watches on EDST.
Next we are into Wisconsin. We roll though Ashland, sighting the 1,800-foot Ore Dock, not in use since the 1960's, and the Hotel Chequamegon, a modern rebuilding of a turn-of-the-century palace. Both are interesting, but we don't stop. It is on to Bayfield, our westernmost destination.
The weather is still holding fair, and the winds light and variable. The time change is working in our favor, as we have arrived in Bayfield before noon local time, with plenty of opportunity to go boating. We have been most concerned with our chances for boating in this area, as we will need the cooperation of Lake Superior if we are going to be able to visit any of the offshore islands in our small boat. Today looks like it was made for us. There is not much of a breeze, and what breeze there is comes from the southeast, putting most of the Apostle Islands in the lee of Madeline Island. We are anxious to take advantage of this favorable weather.
First, we locate our lodging. We're staying at the Winfield Inn, just north of town. We are so early to arrive that our accommodations are not available yet. Check-in will not be possible until after 2 p.m. We return to Bayfield, looking for the boat launch ramp. Traffic is heavy in the little town, population 600 but swelled to three or four times that in mid summer. Cars fill every parking space. The streets are narrow, and tourists cross at every intersection. The roads lead steeply down to the water. We find a marina, but its unimproved ramp looks only suitable for launching a canoe. Can this be the ramp?
Chris jumps out of the car to ask a local boater. No, this is not the only ramp. There is another down a few blocks. We discover the municipal boat launch. It was hard to get a bearing on it because there are empty boat trailers parked at every available space for blocks around. The ramp is at the end of a street, but lacks a turnaround area. You drive down car-first and back around a corner to get your trailer lined up for launching. It's not an easy approach. The launch fee is $5, the most expensive we've seen. The guy ahead of me takes the last trailer parking space, too.
The burned out hulk of a boat greets us at the public boat ramp.
We get the Whaler off the trailer and into the water, the steep ramp leading to a rather shoal and weedy end of a little harbor. I drive off in the car, finding some parking down a block at a public building whose lot advertises it's available for boat trailers on the weekend. It has been a hectic few minutes and it is boiling hot and tropically humid. The scene at the launch site is a strange one. Just off the end of the finger pier floats the blackened hulk of a 30-foot cruiser, moored to the seawall, its superstructure burned away. The adjacent shoreside building is burned and charred, too, evidently from the fire from the boat. Yellow police line tape keeps people away. Perhaps it was a recent event and still under investigation. We want to get out of this hot and hellish scene. I back the boat away from the launch, turn her around, and begin a fast idle out of the marina.
Suddenly from the rear cockpit of his 35-foot motor yacht a local boater begins gesturing at us. He's pointing behind us. I turn around, thinking perhaps we are trailing a line in the water. No, nothing in the water. What's he want? I cut the engine so we can have a conversation.
"Can you slow down? You're starting to roll a wake." he yells to us. I turn around to double check. Well, there is a wake, a two-inch-high one.
"Can you go at clutch speed? This is a NO WAKE zone," he requests. Alright, I can go slower I guess. We proceed out of the little harbor at a pace so sluggish that we barely have steerage. It makes the wake-Nazi happy. At the mouth of the harbor breakwall, we turn into the Bay, only to discover a long stretch of submerged pilings, completely unmarked by any warning. Fortunately, our shallow draft allows us to avoid them without damage.
Next stop is the gas dock, if we can find it. We head north from the little boat launching marina, past a commercial fishing harbor, and enter the main harbor breakwater. It is filled with sailboat masts, but no sign or arrow for the gas dock. I guess the sailors don't use much gas. We try one way, nope wrong, must be the other. We are moving at dead-dead-slow here, so as not to provoke another admonishment from a docked boater. OK, there's the gas dock. We come along side for fuel.
The young dock attendant hands me the gas hose. I add six gallons and a pint of oil to the main, 12-gallon tank, and three gallons and half a pint to the partially filled 6-gallon tank. Chris gets some ice for the cooler, a block and a bag of cubes; it is warm and I really want the beer cold when I drink one.
"Is this your only boat," the young dockboy asks, "or is it your dingy for a bigger one?" Perhaps in his youthful naivety he does not realize that not everyone on the planet can afford a 40-foot racing sailboat. It's just that a lot of people in Bayfield can. He wasn't smarmy about it, so I forgive him. I guess we are a little smaller than most of the boats in the marina and surrounding area. Maybe we are nuts to go out in Lake Superior in a 15-foot Boston Whaler.
Nine gallons of fuel and two bags of ice set us back $17, plus a buck for the dock kid--remark aside--but it is worth it. We are ready to get out of Bayfield and get on the water. For some reason, our initial impression has been one of a slight hostility. As we motor out of the marina, I catch a remark from a passing boater. Was that directed at me? More hostility or now my paranoia? Of well, who cares. Let's get the hell out of here.
Apostle Islands Chart
Adapted from NOAA 14960
Beyond the breakwater we get up on plane. A cooling breeze comes across the water. We are enjoying ourselves again. I head for Madeline Island, where I figure there should be absolutely no waves along her lee shore. My assessment is correct, and we are soon enjoying a beautiful ride at our slowest planning speed up ten miles or more of Madeline Island's northwest coast, enjoying the views of the many nice homes and shore facilities. Chris whips up a boat lunch--peanut butter and jelly sandwiches-- and the beer is soon delightfully chilled and refreshing.
We reach the end of Madeline Island, where we turn north and cross over a mile or so to Stockton Island. There is a Nation Park Service (NPS) dock there, where we make a brief landing to stretch our legs ashore. I even take a little dip in the water of Lake Superior, cool but surprisingly warm considering its reputation. It's about 60-degrees today, but warmer right here along the beach.
Back in the Whaler, we get our first glimpse of sea caves along the southeast point of Stockton Island. Rounding its southern tip, we head over to Manitou Island, were the NPS has restored a small fishing village. We pass by via boat, but decline to go ashore to their dock. It is just too hot on land. Now three hours into our cruise, Chris declares she feels like she has sun stroke. She is too hot and has had too much sun. Another day that needs a bimini. OK, we'll cut short our exploration of the Apostle Islands and return to Bayfield. We get back up on plane and run twelve miles or so back south over calm seas.
We haul the boat out and drive over to the Winfield Inn. The parking lot is a little difficult with the trailer, but nothing like the total chaos it would have been if we had stayed at a place in town. Chris has again picked the ideal spot for us to stay. We have a second floor room with a private balcony that overlooks Chequamegon Bay from a half-mile north of Bayfield. The room has two double beds, one to hold all our junk, and one, by the big opening window, for sleeping. The mattress could be a touch firmer, but it will do. The air-conditioner is on and it is nice and cool. This will be a pleasant home for the next four nights.
Or will it. Chris and I quickly caucus about our plans. When we laid out the trip, we dedicated four nights for Bayfield because we were worried about the chances for boating. If the weather were against us, we might not get an opportunity to go out at all if we didn't have a few extra days in the area. But today we've had the luxury of four hours on the water in ideal conditions. We've gotten one full day under our belt; do we really need three more? Perhaps our reception in Bayfield has soured us on the place, too. Do we think there is enough to keep us busy here for four days?
On top of these feelings, we have been in a rhythm of drive-boat-drive-boat for seven days now, and maybe we are just a little too keyed up to sit still for four days. Chris, the quick decision maker that she is, gets on the phone and books us into Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin for Wednesday. Done deal. We'll only stay in Bayfield three nights. We had been considering Sturgeon Bay as a possible next cruising grounds, so this will give us a chance to check it out.
Our bodies still an hour ahead of local time, we strike out in search of dinner around 5 p.m. A local hostelry, Gruenke's, is offering a fish-boil, a traditional dish in this maritime and fishing region. That is just perfect for Chris, who likes to experiment with her diet, adding as much local flavor to it as possible when she travels. For me, I'll take another burger and fries, thank you. There have been enough new experiences for me for one day that I prefer to keep my dinner on the safe side.
At Gruenke's we are delighted to sit outdoors, out of the sun, canopied by a hanging garden of plants, where we can smell the cooking fish-boil just a few feet away, roiling over an open wood-fired flame in a big pot. Well, I am not completely against sampling the native foodstuffs, so I order myself some Leinenkugel's. This excellent lager proclaims to be brewed by Jacob Leinenkugel at Chippewa Falls since the mid-1800's. What the label does not mention is the little secret that they were bought out by Miller Beer a decade ago. The big conglomerate brewer does everything it can to hide their involvement, so the consumer stills buys into the small brewery image of Leinenkugel's. Corporate ownership aside, they still brew a good beer.
At six o'clock the fish boil is ready, announced with the clatter of a gong. Patrons line up cafeteria-style to fill their plates with boiled whitefish, redskin potatoes, onions, and cole slaw. Raspberry shortcake is included.
"What do you do if didn't make enough," Chris asks the cook.
"Been making these for ten years now," he says, "and I never ran out yet." Customers continue to drop in for dinner for another thirty minutes. In all, the fish boil has served about twenty five hungry customers at $11.95 a head, less for children under twelve.
After dinner we stroll around town. Most of the shops are closed, though. It is Sunday night, we recall. A tour of the harbor shows an interesting collection of boats. Sailboats predominate, outnumbering powerboats by at least five to one. The area is a good one for sailing. It probably has steady breezes; even on a hot and calm day like today there was enough wind to sail on in the afternoon.
We are back to the Winfield Inn. A big group of golfers is staying at the Inn, and they are holding a post-diner cocktail party over on the patio deck across the way. They are a noisy bunch, these drunken golfers, but we are plenty tired after our long day and we're soon asleep in spite of them.
Our east facing balcony window admits the morning sun to our room, rousing us early. We are ready for another day on the water and a cruise of the Apostle Islands. We brew up four or five cups of coffee in the little drip pot the room provides, and study the chart.
We decide to go north to the tip of the peninsula, checking ramp sites as we go. There are three more shown, at Red Cliff Bay, Schooner Bay and Little Sand Bay. Any of these will put us closer to the northern islands of the National Lakeshore than would launching from Bayfield.
Leaving the boat and trailer behind for the exploratory trip, we cruise north along the highway, the car feeling positively powerful without the load of the trailer behind it. The land north of Bayfield is the reserve of the Red Cliff Indian Band. We visit their campground and marina, but the ramp facility is expensive, $6, and looks hard to get to. We press on.
Schooner Bay slips past us undetected. (I think you have to turn off the main road and take a county side road to get there. We never did find it.) As we speed northward along the highway, we are getting some strange looks from the local folks, who I assume must be Indians since we're crossing their reservation. I guess it's the big black four-door sedan. The Crown Vic is pretty much the archetypical government or police sedan. Maybe they think we're Indian Agents.
A large, carved, wooden U.S. Park Service sign directs us to turn right for Little Sand Bay. Wonderful signs like these are common in this National Park and add to its character. For me, they represent some tax dollars well-spent for a change. Seven miles down the road we reach a very nice little harbor, set in the bight on the west side of the tip of Detour Point and protected with stone and wooden breakwalls of impressive scale. The boat launch ramp is the northernmost in Wisconsin. The launch fee is only $3, a bargain provided by Russel Township, and there is a park office with bathrooms nearby.
We make a quick tour of the place and check the wave conditions offshore: very small waves. The weather is the only question mark. The weak high pressure that has been sitting up here for four days is moving off to the east, being replaced by a big, ugly, slow-moving low pressure disturbance. That weather is off to our south, but the effect of it seems to be blocked by the lake, giving us a hazy day, with the threat of rain. But it's certainly boating weather right now. We jump back in the car to retrieve the boat. It's a quick drive back to the Winfield Inn. All the golfers have left for the course, so it is easy to hitch up the trailer to the car in the parking lot.
We detour back to Bayfield for some carry-out sandwiches from a great little shop that Chris has found, Wild By Nature. They specialize in vegetarian, 90's-style food, the kind she favors. It is staffed by some neo-hippies who would fit right into the 60's. (Their food is hip, but their business skills are a little suspect: a month later when we we're going over the MasterCard bill we discovered they had charged us twice for our purchases! We had to call and get an adjustment on the billing.) Macro-biotic, Vegan--whatever--I'll eat anything on the boat, as long as it's a little salty and the beer is cold. Soon we are on the highway northbound, stopping to top off the car and boat gas tanks at a "Gas Station and Smoke Shop" in the Indian Reserve.
Inside is an old timer, who helps me with the pronunciation of Chequamegon.
"Around here, we say SHE-WAMM-AH-GAN," he tells me. "Think of it like SHE WARM AGAIN. The water, is she warm again? Then there's those Canadians, they say CHEEK-QWAM-E-(G)CON"
The linguistic assistance aside, it is a good thing we stopped for gas; this is the last gas station on the highway for about 36 miles.
Half an hour later, we are aboard the just-launched Whaler, heading north four miles to Sand Island, whose eastern shore is filled with sea caves carved into weaknesses in the red sandstone by centuries of waves. We can ease inshore to within a few feet of the caves. The water sparkles blue-green, showing us the scoured smooth bottom, too.
Sea caves on Sand Island's eastern shore.
Close-up of a sea cave, Sand Island.
At the northern tip we approach the lighthouse. There seems to be a boat landing built in the big stone blocks along the shore, but exposed to an open Lake Superior, the wave action is too big for us to approach it. I don't want to risk a ding in the boat or prop. The other approach to the light is to tie to the NPS dock a couple of miles south in the bay and hike in along a trail.
Heading five miles east, we pass south of York Island, and approach Raspberry Island, the site of another wonderful lighthouse along its southwest bluff shoreline. The Raspberry Island Light has been restored to its pre-automation condition. We put ashore here for a look around, tieing to the lee side of a nice dock provided by the Park Service A long flight of concrete stairs leads up the bluff from the dock, a small railway straddling them, and at the top we find a winch and a cart for hauling up supplies. The grounds and buildings have all been freshly painted and are in great condition. A park ranger is on-site and gives tours of the main buildings.
Steps and railway to top of bluff
Your author at work.
Back in the boat and heading south two miles, we encounter a commercial fishing boat returning with its catch and being followed by a huge flock of seagulls. We follow them to their private dock along the west side of Rapsberry Bay, where they unload baskets of whitefish, freshly taken from their live trap nets. We had seen their nets marked with floats all across the northern part of the peninsula.
Fishermen unload the day's catch at a small dock.
"Looks like a storm's coming," one of the fishermen yells to us. This is the second time we've been cautioned by a local fisherman, and we take a look at the skies around us. There are some big cumulus clouds building up to the southeast and headed this way. Well, time to go back, we decide. More sea caves along the shore at Point Detour entertain us as we cruise back to the launch site.
By the time we have hauled the boat, the sun has returned and the day is really turning into a beautiful one. We end up with the boat sitting on the trailer by the lakeshore, with a nice breeze blowing in. I take the opportunity to wash the boat down. It has been in and out of the water seven times so far this trip, and spent three nights in the water at a dock. There are a multitude of scum lines along the hull. I jerk some water from the lake in a bucket and attack the waterlines.
About this time, another trailer boat comes to the ramp, launching a 14-foot aluminum boat with a 20-horse motor and Illinois registration.
"It's a great day out there for you today," I tell him, "the waves are very small."
"Yea," he says, "I saw you launching this morning and decided I'd go back and get our boat."
As I watch him load his wife and two small kids aboard, I have some doubts about the propriety of going out there in such a small boat. I think our unsinkable Whaler is a litle more seaworthy, even if it is just a foot longer, and we've got a 25-watt marine radio aboard. Plus, there are just two of us on what is a much more stable boat. But today the big lake is very forgiving. Even 14-foot aluminum boats are welcome.
Back at the Winfield Inn, we crash for an afternoon nap. By quarter to five (local time) we are down for dinner at the Portside Restaurant at Port Superior Marina, a few miles south of Bayfield along the shore. This marina really has the power boaters on the run. The sailboats outnumber powerboats by at least fifty to one. We always enjoy a stroll along the pier admiring boats, but here there is such a surfeit of sailboats--over three hundred--that we cannot manage to see them all.
Dinner was good, especially Chris's. She goes for the local flavor again, trying a locally bottled hard apple cider, with 6% alcohol content.
"That's stronger than beer," I caution her. She also orders--of all things--whitefish livers!
"They're good," she smiles. Too exotic for me. I have a half-portion of Black Angus rib eye steak. And a Leinenkugel's.
The weather is the big question mark this morning. On cable TV The Weather Channel shows a huge patch of rain, covering almost all of Wisconsin. It's just the extreme northern areas, where we are, that aren't experiencing a deluge. It looks like we will miss the rain again, but this morning the breeze is up and from off the lake, blowing northeast at 10 knots.
We had such fun at Little Sand Bay that we make it our destination again today. When we get up there, however, the onshore wind has some strength to it. There are some sea caves to the west of us, so we head off in that direction. Once we are out of the bight of Little Sand Bay, the waves really pick up. We are about to go five miles or more downwind, so I decide we had better turn around and check the conditions we will be facing on the way back.
Going into the waves rather than with them, their size is now much more of an issue. This is too rough for us, especially five miles of it this afternoon on the way back, when we are likely to be tired and the waves even higher as the wind builds. We'll try going east instead of west.
A little before ten, we decide that it is just too rough everywhere out here for us. I recall that there is a guided tour of the fishery next to the boat harbor that begins at ten, so we turn around again and head for the dock.
The Hokenson Brothers Fishery, once a thriving family business and homesite but now subsumed by the park, provides an entertaining hour long diversion. The young red-headed Park Service docent is sharp with her facts and stories about the Swedish family that ran the place for a couple generations. The workshop is filled with miles of old nets and lines and an interesting collection of mechanical devices to build and maintain boats and a fishing business in the early 1900's.
The northernmost boat ramp in Wisconsin. Note the size
of the timbers and stones in the breakwater.
Little Sand Bay
After lunch dockside (but aboard the boat where I feel I can drink a beer without risking the ire of the Park Rangers), we give the big lake another try. It is still too rough to strike out any long distance, and we've seen all the points of interest nearby. Maybe we should have tried Schooner Bay, we conclude, but it's time to haul out of here.
With the boat and trailer in tow, we drive west and south, down to Cornucopia for a look at what might have been our boating destination. Jeez, it is a good thing we didn't go via boat. The bay at Cornucopia is filled with whitecaps. If we had boated down here, we would have been stranded and had to go back to get the trailer, probably by hitch-hiking back to Little Sand Bay!
For our last night in the area, we return to Bayfield for dinner, sitting on the deck of the Bayfield Inn, having burgers and beers and enjoying the breeze and the view. Afterward we do our best to contribute to the local art community economy, but we can't find the right print or artifact to buy.
We have tickets tonight for the Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua. This is a great local enterprise, producing wonderful live entertainment under a big tent on the hillside of a local ski area for the past thirteen years. It often features nationally known headline acts, but tonight's show presents a variety of local talent. We've never heard of any of them, but they put on a great evening of live musical entertainment, well worth the $16-per-person admission. The show runs past 10:30, making this our latest night of the trip.
Bayfield is, if I judge correctly, the only town on all of Lake Superior that is attempting to make it as a purely tourist and resort town. There are no paper mills or prisons around to sustain the local economy. The whole place is oriented for the summer (and probably winter) tourist, the boater, the cottager, the camper. The town has plenty of things to do, and we'd recommend it to anyone. It is busy and crowded on the weekends in mid-summer.
If you are going there for boating you will find many wonderful destinations, but you might be better served with a larger boat than ours. An 18-20 foot deep vee would probably give you access to the water on many days when we would be stuck on shore or inshore. There are dozens of sailboats available for charter from local companies, but we wonder about anchoring out overnight around there. The Apostle Islands don't have the natural hurricane holes that the North Channel does, and I would think you might spend some or most of your nights at a marina. Perhaps in evidence of this, every evening we would see a big parade of sailboats returning to Bayfield. And while potting around the offshore islands, we didn't see too many anchored for overnight stays, but usually, rather, swinging off the beach while people were ashore for a swim or a walk.
The town has many art galleries, but if you want to shop, go early. The merchants seem to close up at six in the evening, just when we wanted to browse.
On the road again, we cruise through Wisconsin's northern counties, heading for Green Bay, and thence on to Sturgeon Bay. As we drive south, the weather deteriorates. We begin to appreciate how fortunate we have been the past three days in our northern perch.
By the time we reach Green Bay, it is raining quite hard, but then like clockwork, as soon as we turn northward on the peninsula the rain slows and stops. As we come into Sturgeon Bay, about an hour north, the rain has stopped and it is just overcast.
Our shot-in-the-dark hotel choice turns out to be another winner. We are staying at the Leatham Smith Lodge, on the north shore of Sturgeon Bay. The Lodge has been around since the 1930's, and it has seen some ups and downs. We are catching it on a rebound, and we have a very nicely furnished room, including a lazy-boy style chair and a writing desk, along with the usual cable TV and king-size bed. A plus for the trailer boater, the lodge has its own marina and launch ramp, the ramp being free for guests and overnight dockage in the marina only $0.40/foot, the most reasonable fee anywhere.
It has been a long, tiring drive down here, but I think we need to get the boat in the water right away. You never know about the weather and we have managed to be able to boat for ten straight days. We toss the Whaler in. We're getting pretty good at this trailer launching and recovery routine now with all the practice we've had on this trip.
Of course, it begins to drizzle as soon as we leave the dock, but we are not deterred. We have rain gear aboard. The clouds and rain are really not uncomfortable. In fact they are a pleasant change from the hot sun we were in a few days ago.
The Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal provides a calm refuge from a stormy Lake Michigan
Surveying the eastern end of the waterway first, we check down to 5 MPH (posted speed limit) in the revetted and dredged Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal that connects the head of Sturgeon Bay to Lake Michigan. At the entrance there is a nice, vintage, and thankfully fully operational and manned Coast Guard station. The cut backs haven't gotten this one yet. It, too, has a freshly installed DGPS antenna site.
Returning to the center of the waterway, the southern side is filled with marinas and moored boats. There is a large highway bascule bridge across the head of bay, with 42 feet of clearance when closed.
Farther west, the Michigan Street bascule bridge projects across, limiting your height to 14 feet. Just east of the bridge on the north shore are the docks of Palmer-Johnson Yachts, filled with big sailboats awaiting some work. A Catalina-50 lies along the wharf with a big gash near her sheer, hastily patched with duck tape.
We fit easily under the bridge in our low topsides Whaler. Next we encounter Palmer-Johnson's main plant, where they craft beautiful steel and aluminum yachts of lengths that will astound you. There's a big, unfinished one along the shore that I want to investigate later.
West and north along the shore from here are the huge yards, floating drydock, cranes, and two graving docks of Bay Shipbuilding, the company founded by our hotel's namesake, Leatham Smith. Bay Shipbuilding handles mainly commercial and government vessels. The USCGC BRAMBLE is in a graving dock for repairs. A twin-hulled, catermaran style tug, intended for attachment to an integrated tug-barge combo, nears completion in the yards. Above the yard soars a huge crane; its upper beams hundreds of feet in the air, where an enclosed operator's cupola hangs.
"I could never work in that little glass booth," remarks Chris, imagining the view from such heights.
Our cruise is a short one, but we see many new and interesting sights. Back at the lodge marina, we decline overnight dockage (for only $6) and decide to haul the boat out on the trailer.
"It's easy to put her back in tomorrow, and if we decide to leave, we have the boat on the trailer already," I tell Chris. This will turn out to be a wise decision.
After freshing up, we take to the car for a tour of the northern shores of the bay. We stop at the Palmer-Johnson plant, where they have kindly left all the boat shed doors open, allowing me to drive right up and gawk at the huge yachts under construction. They even have gone so far as to provide little lecterns with information about each boat for the inquisitive visitor like me. I run across the street to stand under the huge aluminum hull of the unfinished yacht we saw earlier. This thing is immense. I pace off its length; it must be over 200 feet long. The blue cover protecting the topsides is weathered and torn. What's the story?
Next, we drive up to the guarded entrance at Bay Ship Building. No, we can't be admitted to the yard, but the friendly guard, a retired Coast Guardsman (who served on the USCGC Mesquite), explains what's happening.
"That's a barge we're building to go with that tug over there," he points out. "Got the BRAMBLE over there." "And in the back of that building, Palmer-Johnson has leased space and they're building a 135-footer."
No, I can't take a peek--insurance concerns. But I ask him about the big unfinished aluminum yacht on the hard down the road.
"Oh that." "That's been there for seven years, I think." "Some wealthy Italian ordered it, then he ran out of money." "Palmer-Johnson just hauled it out and lets it sit there."
The aluminum in the hull and decks alone must be worth a fortune, I speculate. After this enjoyable diversion, we drive further west into the downtown and discover the restaurant Chris has chosen for dinner, The Pudgy Seagull. (When your wife is as accommodating about boating as mine, you let her pick the restaurants without much of an argument!) This non-alcoholic little grill serves up all kinds of food, and at modest prices. I have some eggs and hash for dinner, while Chris gets a veggie-pita sandwich. They have a little of everything.
In the morning I awake to the sound of rain. The Weather Channel again shows rain is everywhere in the Wisconsin area, but especially right here. The center of the Low is right about Sheybogan, just an hour south of us. It looks like a rainy day for sure, today.
We talk things over: stay here, or head home? Driving in the rain should not be a big problem. We don't plan to drive much faster than 55 MPH with the trailer in any case, so the wet weather should not slow us too much.
Initially we planned one more night of travel and boating in the area, then a return via the Lake Michigan ferry from Manitowac to Ludington. The ferry crossing is not a huge time saver for us, but it would be a nice experience, although with the price of a car plus a trailer ($170), an expensive one. Throw in another night's lodging ($80) and there is a $250 swing on this decision.
"I'm not spending two-hundred-fifty bucks for a boat ride across in the fog," I tell Chris. That won't be much fun, and from the look of the weather, fog is likely to be what the crossing will be made in. She agrees. We'll drive home today.
We load boat and car for travel, grab some coffee and danish at the lodge's complimentary continental breakfast--china cups thank you-- and hit the road. It's just after 8 a.m. CDST.
"If you're heading south, that boat might come in handy," says the woman at the desk as we check out and pay the bill. It has been really raining hard down in the Sheboygan area, right where we are headed.
With great fortune, we manage to avoid all the flooded roads. All the routes we pick tend to be the ones with elevated overpasses, and not the flooded roads and fields we see as we drive above them. In stretches, the rain is intense. Milwaukee goes by as just a blur through high-speed windshield wipers. I stop to pull the drain plug on the boat; the rain is so hard it has saturated the cover and I am afraid the boat is filling up with hundreds of pounds of water.
Luckily, we break into sunshine as we approach Chicago, passing through that metropolis in the early afternoon, yet still slowed in spots to a crawl along its freeways. I can only imagine what it would have been like in the rain we saw up north!
After twelve hours on the road, two stops for meals, two stops for gas, and two stops at rest areas, we are home at ten o'clock. The big trip is over. I give the car, boat, motor, and trailer a pat. They ran perfectly the entire time. I give my wife Chris a pat, too. She was the perfect companion, and a great trip planner. Everything worked out well, and now that this story is written, the big trip of 1998 is finally finished!
The 1998 Boating Trip Boat........"ContinuousWave", 1976 15-ft Boston Whaler Sport Motor.......Merc500, 1976 50 HP 4-cyclinder 2-stroke outboard Trailer.....Shorelandr SS-16, 1988, single axle, no brakes Tow Car.....Ford CROWN VICTORIA, 1993, 4.6L OHC V-8 Crew..........Jim, Chris Duration......11 days Dates.........July 27 - August 6, 1998 Destinations..Hessel, Munising, Houghton, Bayfield, Sturgeon Bay CAR GAS LOG (Towing Trailer) Date Location Miles Gals Price Cost MPG Notes ____________________________________________________________________________ Jul 27 Gaylord, MI 242 14.3 $1.33 $18.98 16.96 Towing, No OD Jul 29 St. Ignace, MI 150 8.5 1.23 10.39 17.75 Mixed towing Jul 31 Munising, MI 182 10.4 1.32 13.73 17.50 Aug 1 Houghton, MI 174 9.6 1.21 11.66 18.05 Aug 3 Red Cliff, WI 180 10.0 1.30 13.00 18.00 Est. miles Aug 5 Glidden, WI 218 12.7 1.30 16.51 17.16 Aug 5 Sturgeon Bay, WI 287 13.3 1.30 17.33 21.53 Short Fill Aug 6 Two Rivers, WI 56 5.4 1.34 7.21 10.48 Now Full Aug 6 Lake Forest, IL 148 8.2 1.38 11.32 18.11 Aug 6 Jackson, MI 246 12.9 1.20 15.44 19.12 All Hwy Towing in OD Aug 6 Southfield, MI 87 4.0 1.30 5.20 21.87 ____________________________________________________________________________ TOTALS 1970 109.3 $140.78 AVERAGES $1.29 18.05
Copyright © 1998, 1999 by James W. Hebert.
This article first appeared September, 1998.
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