Wooden Boats, Lifeblood of Les Cheneaux Islands in Northern Michigan

In part because of that vulnerability, wood boats rapidly faded when fiberglass boats came on the market in the late 50’s. Chris Craft made its last wood boat in the late 60’s, Koster says. Up in Les Cheneaux, the market evolved too, and many people here did jetison their wood boats in favor of the carefree and modern fiberglass. But many hung onto them. Locals guess-timate that today there are maybe 300 wood boats plying the Les Cheneaux waters.

On the other side of Hessel from Mertaugh’s, I’m hearing a little more about that transition from Tom Mertaugh, of Classic and Antique Boats. Tom’s grandfather founded E.J. Mertaugh Boatworks, but the name was sold with the business decades ago; Tom worked in wood boats his entire life and started this shop in 2000. As a wood boat repair expert, Tom shoulders a summer schedule that everybody else in this field also accepts:

“I work every Sunday all summer," says Tom. "I’ve worked every 4th of July. My girlfriend doesn’t understand, she used to be married to a guy who worked for the state. It’s just a different lifestyle.

“Dad talks about how wood boats just got tossed in the burn pile when fiberglass came around,” Tom continues. “Awful good boats, boats that people would just die for today. They were considered just dumb old wood boats back then.”

These days, nobody is throwing wood boats on burn piles because their value has skyrocketed—even parts can be expensive. In Tom’s store, he points to an engine from a 1930 26-foot Chris Craft. “This is a very rare motor. As is, it’s worth $40,000, restored it would get $100,000.” And just like at Mertaugh’s, the shop shelves are loaded with old parts. A strip of chrome from a 1940’s barrelback, a ventilator from the 30’s, a Beehive Globe cabin light for $300 … on and on, hundreds of wood boat doodads.

Out in the workshop, the work bay doors open to the morning, and soft northern light diffuses in. Cool air scented with sawdust and varnish fills the space. The swish-swish-swish of men hand-sanding wood boats provides the soundtrack. Boats sit in various stages of repair. One mostly ribs. Another getting final coats of varnish. The star seems to be a 26-foot Hacker Craft, like Chris Craft, a premium wood boat brand once made near Detroit. The sleek mahogany boat is nearly restored, with 30 percent of the wood new. When is a boat no longer considered original? When the hull members (think of it as the skeleton) are gone, Tom explains.

I thank Tom for the tour and wander back to the docks, where Brad Koster’s teen daughter Audrey is waiting in a (fiberglass) boat to captain us out to Marquette Island. She fires up the engine and eases in no-wake mode out of the marina, then opens the throttle. Marquette Island—the place where legendary American naturalist Aldo Leopold spent boyhood summers—serves as an oasis of longtime family estates, many going back several generations. The island is also home to some of Les Cheneaux’s most devoted wood boat disciples.

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