Photography By Frank Solle, Stillpoint Photography
The largest of a 14-island archipelago, Beaver Island began as a Native American camp, became a trapping and trading center for the French and British, then a self declared Mormon “kingdom,” followed by a base for Irish fishermen. Islanders like its present-day slow pace, but wish it was on the radar of just a few more visitors. Granted, a Beaver Island vacation isn’t for everyone. If you’re an amusement park loving, adrenaline-rush-seeker, this may not be the place.
But, if you’re a nature-lover in search of peace and quiet, who gets pleasure from hiking, fishing, hunting and other active relaxation, Beaver Island can accommodate you, in a cozy B&B, waterfront cottage or full-service inn, and supply you with essential services, restaurants, shops and activities in its one village, St. James.
Five years ago, Mark Engelsman and his family were immersed in Chicagoland business, searching for a summertime escape from the city when they learned about Beaver Island from sailing friends. “We were looking for a place to spend time in summer,” says Engelsman who, before they arrived, helped design museums. His wife was an academic. They traded those sticky Chicago summers for 78-degree mid-Lake Michigan highs. Summer stays soon turned into year-round living when he became owner of Happy Paddle, the local island paddleboard, bicycle and kayak livery. “It seemed like a good fit. It seemed taking people kayaking was how I wanted to spend my summers,” says the 46-year-old. “I’ve never lived in a small town before, and honestly it feels like you’re slipping back into the 1950s. My wife would call the grocery to order things. You can literally finish up work for the day here and then go jump in the lake.”
“ ‘Boodlin’ … [is] island slang for packing some snacks and piling in the car or hopping on your bike and just going somewhere, anywhere, to explore and enjoy.”
It’s summer when the island sees most visitors, including sailors mooring at the harbor, people in search of a different type of vacation, and academics and students at the Central Michigan University Biological Station. “We always joke that we have more academics and Ph.Ds per capita on the island in summer than anywhere else,” Engelsman says.
So what’s a night out like here, where there is one gas station, one grocery, one hardware store and maybe 50 motel rooms, not counting vacation rental homes? Where most every car has its keys left in the ignition (after all, where’s a car thief going to go)? “Having dinner and a cocktail with friends is a pretty typical night,” says Engelsman. “My favorite restaurant is the Circle M, a mile or so from downtown at the island’s north end. Directions simply say, ‘turn east at the Four Corners.’” Other options include Daddy Frank’s for breakfast burritos, the Restaurant at the Beaver Island Lodge offering white linen service a short bike ride from town on the island’s northwest side, Donegal Danny’s and Stoney Acre Grill & Pub, reached by the King’s Highway.
That road’s name is a nod to local Mormon history and that of Jesse Strang, who, in the mid-1800s, declared himself king of Beaver Island. When the federal government took issue, let’s just say things ended badly for King Strang. The story is told at the Old Mormon Print Shop Museum, which was built by Strang’s followers to publish a newspaper and religious documents. The museum also delves into Beaver Island’s Native American and Irish heritage.
What keeps bringing back nearly everyone you speak with, like Kelly Haenni, is the island’s simple, unique, remoteness. She visited the island as a child with her sailing family, and in 1995 began vacationing there. Eventually she and her family purchased a home, where they spend as much time as her work as a meeting and event planner in Nashville allows. Beaver Island is, she says, “a place in my heart and it’s where I wanted to take my husband and children. One week led to two, which led to three. We ended up getting a cottage in 2006 on Wicklow Beach.”
When you come here, Haenni explains, you’ll soon hear the word “boodlin’.” It’s island slang for packing some snacks and piling in the car or hopping on your bike, and just going somewhere, anywhere, to explore and enjoy. There’s even a song named for it. “You don’t have a plan, necessarily. You might stop at someone’s house or spots like Lake Geneserath, or as we call it, Lake G,” she says. Geneserath is one of five inland lakes.
“We bike, we paddleboard, we do anything there is to do outside,” Haenni adds. That may also include a visit to Cable Bay. “It’s my favorite beach. You cross a little creek and after probably a half-mile walk through the woods you get to some dunes, and then you’re in this gorgeous little bay that’s 99 percent your own.
“When I want to see nature I’ll go to Miller’s Marsh Natural Area on the west side,” she says. The mile-plus-long nature trail circling the marsh includes points of interest, and a chance to see the island’s namesake beaver. Or, she recommends, set off on a walk on Hidden Valley Trail, one of many hiking routes on the official island map.
Take a guided kayak trip with Engelsman to neighboring High, Garden or Hog islands, soon to be part of a designated water trail. Or snorkel or scuba with Captain Michael Collins of Archipelago Charters, or Mike Weede of Paradise Bay Boat Charters and Dive Shop.
If you fish, try a charter for what the islanders call “golden bones.” Those are carp so big that anglers fly from across the country to head to Beaver Island to hook 30-pounders on 100 square miles of flats that will make you think you’re fishing the Bahamas, according to Steve West, executive director of the local chamber of commerce. “We have the largest expanse of flats on the Great Lakes, and because the water is so clear, you’re sight fishing just like you do in the Caribbean. I’ve fished for bonefish, permit and tarpon, and fishing here is the biggest thrill I’ve ever had,” says West.
And then there’s sunset on Donegal Bay with your favorite libation. One visit, and you might just find yourself spending summers on Lake Michigan, boodlin’ and enjoying life, Beaver Island style.
WHEN YOU GO
BEAVER ISLAND CHAMBER OF COMMERCE beaverisland.org, (231) 448-2505 The source for lodging and dining, things to do, campgrounds, marinas, outfitters, transportation and tours.
BEAVER ISLAND BOAT COMPANY bibco.com Passenger and vehicle ferry service for the 2.5-hour trip between Charlevoix and Beaver Island begins in April and wraps up in December. Frequency varies with season.
EVENTS The outdoor Beaver Island Music Festival, July 20-22, 2017, combines art, rock, food and fun. bimf.net
Baroque on Beaver Festival, July 28-August 6, 2017, features professional musicians performing classical, jazz, pop and more. baroqueonbeaver.org
CHARLEVOIX CONVENTION & VISITORS BUREAU visitcharlevoix.com , (800) 367-8557 or (231) 547-2101
This article originally appeared in the 2017 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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