Come the early season melt in the Eastern Upper Peninsula’s Les Cheneaux chain of islands, artist Rick Shapero heads to the largest ice formation he can find on La Salle Island, hot drink and sandwich in hand, to watch Lake Huron’s open waters lap winter into spring. Once channel ice has vanished, the local glassblower moves to a kayak perch, a favored way to explore the channels and protected bays of the archipelago’s 36 islands.
“You’re bound to see osprey and eagles, you might catch otters and beavers, and you’ll see a lot of other waterfowl in places like the edge of the Aldo Leopold Nature Preserve on Marquette Island,” he says. “You’ll see beautiful boat houses, rock formations and beautiful forests. It’s really protected and serene.”
If Shapero were to create a piece of glass titled “Les Cheneaux,” he says, it might feature white (winter) in the middle and the colors of spring swirling around the edge. But even pieces that express the dynamic flow of water, he admits, can’t wholly capture the new energy you’ll find amid the chain and its base towns of Cedarville and Hessel.
PROGRESS ON ISLAND TIME
The convergence of a successful boat-building school, a culinary school with waterfront restaurant, a distillery and microbrewery under development, a new coffee roaster, and an old gas station-turned gallery cooperatively run by members of the Les Cheneaux Area Artisan Cooperative, have helped make the area’s history of creativity more evident and accessible.
Those who have long paddled or motored the region in a signature wooden boat can now pull into the expanded marina and walk to eat a dinner of braised pork belly or duck confit in a high-end restaurant run by culinary students. While the Great Lakes Boat Building School caters to full-time students, it also offers shorter, summertime workshops in how to make a paddle or even an entire kayak. But growth is likely to remain slow—by intention.
“We are the alternative place, the place where you can get just enough to sate those other desires,” Shapero says, “but where nature I think will always take precedence.”
TAKE A TRAIL
The most timeless action of Les Cheneaux (pronounced Lay-shen-o) is on the trails—its water trails, a new birding trail, or on one of many conservancy-preserved forest trails. In a campaign to highlight some of the world’s most undisturbed habitats, The Nature Conservancy once named the islands one of the world’s last great places. That helped concentrate ecotourism efforts over the years and at last count led to the preservation of some 1,900 acres of Marquette Island habitat by the Little Traverse Conservancy alone.
Seeing the greatness of the place is easy on a tour with naturalist Jessie Hadley, who came to the region as a Nature Conservancy staff member and later founded the outfitter service Woods & Water Ecotours. Her day- and overnight paddling trips highlight wildlife amid the bays as well as plants like wild rice and arrowroot and the spruce, birch and aspen of the northern boreal forest. Senses are on full alert as paddlers glide through channels on specialty trips like a sunset kayak tour. The forest comes alive with a chorus of buzzing as the day morphs into dusk, and paddlers glide in nearly total darkness as they watch the stars come out and moon rise above.
Book a birding ecotour, or explore some of the country’s best birding on a self guided trip on the new North Huron Birding Trail. Then-graduate student, now Michigan Sea Grant educator Elliot Nelson created the formal trail on land he’d been exploring since childhood. He says he found the colorful warblers and songbirds that had attracted him as a kid (and still do), but also massive concentrations of waterfowl including the rare Bonaparte’s gull. The trail covers diverse habitat along shorelines, grasslands and into pristine wetlands. But its most spectacular shows come mid-May, says Nelson, when warblers migrate to northern breeding grounds, rest on Les Cheneaux points and wake to a feast of tiny midges hatching on shorelines. “The leaves aren’t all out yet,” he says, “and you can walk to see dozens of species, everything from the darkest black with red spots, the American redstart, to the bright yellow and gray/blue of the yellow-rumped or magnolia warbler.”
A PLACE WITH A PAST
Look from the air to the chain of irregularly shaped islands with names like Alligator and Boot, Dot, Goose and Echo, and you’ll see why some describe it as looking like something scratched from the water by a giant bear, says Amy Polk, Les Cheneaux Islands Area Tourist Association coordinator. French explorers named the region “the channels” for those canoe-friendly waterways that flow between them, which Native Americans first used as a paddling thoroughfare.
By the late 1800s, travelers from the industrial cities of the day had discovered the region’s clean air and abundance of yellow perch. Over time, inns, tackle shops and restaurants popped up in the mainland villages of Cedarville and Hessel. Some newcomers established the farms that launched an agricultural economy fueling a burgeoning farm to table movement. The family of Aldo Leopold, a leading naturalist of his day, was among those vacationing at the Les Cheneaux Club on Marquette Island. As a child, Leopold mapped the trails and catalogued the birds and wildlife, and the area’s newest festival (this year, June 2-4) was named in his honor.
For 40 years, though, the region has held an annual celebration of the wooden boat— long the way island residents visited neighbors and went out for groceries. Nature helped with the preservation of these antique beauties, Polk notes, because the cold water and protected channels were gentle on the hulls, keeping them in pristine shape. Renting a boat to motor or paddle also remains the ultimate way to explore, says birding trail creator Nelson.
“It’s a beautiful area that you have to experience to understand,” he says. “It’s not the giant glaciers or mountains of Colorado. There are no seaside cliffs. It’s a serene beauty hard to describe unless you’re amid the islands on kayak. It’s a beauty unparalleled to anything I’ve seen.”
WHEN YOU GO
Les Cheneaux Islands Area Tourist Association lescheneaux.org; (888) 364-7526
Find the islands in Lake Huron off the anchor towns of Hessel and Cedarville, about 450 miles northeast of Chicago in the Eastern Upper Peninsula.
Explore on a guided paddle or hike with Woods & Water Ecotours: upecotours.com.
Follow the North Huron Birding Trail: northhuronbirding.com.
Stay in one of the many family-style cabin resorts, generally—like Hessel Bay Sunset Cabins and Breezeswept Cabins—perched on water’s edge.
Eat dessert first. The Jersey Mud sundae dates back to the 1920s, when restaurateur George LaFleur started serving the concoction of vanilla and chocolate ice cream topped with both chocolate and marshmallow sauce, malt powder and a cherry. Find it at the Ice Cream Shoppe, the Hessel Grocery & Deli and North Coast Company inside the E.J. Mertaugh Boat Works. If there’s still room for the main course, try the iconic Snow’s Burger at Snow’s bar (the secret is in the seasoning) and homemade meatballs at authentic Italian Ang-Gio’s.
Learn traditional boat building techniques at Great Lakes Boat Building School: glbbs.org
Don’t miss the Les Cheneaux Islands Antique Wooden Boat Show and the accompanying Festival of the Arts, showcasing traditional art with the work of 65 artists and the artistry of the region’s wooden boats (August 12, 2017; lciboatshow.com).
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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