Wooden Boats, Lifeblood of Les Cheneaux Islands in Northern Michigan

A little while later, when Al gives me my first ride in a triple, I’m amazed at how dramatically different the feeling is from aluminum and fiberglass boats. I’d suspected it would be all subtlety, nuance, more in the mind of the owner than real. But it is real. The hull is quiet and smooth on the waves, the vibration soothing not jittery, the engine sound deep, watery and confident.

On the other side of Marquette Island, Elizabeth Fels takes me to meet Andy McMillan, 40 years old and a fifth generation Les Cheneaux resorter. “My great great grandfather was one of the first here on the island,” he says. Having grown up with wood boats, McMillan had a sense for their specialness, but he didn’t fully grasp it until he became an adult. “I started traveling around, I’d see plastic boats and metal boats, but I didn’t see that other part, the wood boat part. And so much of the experience for me was the boat, the wood boat. It kind of became an obsession.”

When McMillan was 29 he bought a beat-up 1948 Chris Craft double-cabin flybridge cruiser, a 46-footer—only 170 were built. “It was a hulk, junk. I bought it for next to nothing,” he says. Then the restoration journey began, and the ante quickly increased. Each year he would hire E.J. Mertaugh’s to fix some other piece of the boat. “It was all a little bit at a time.” Along the way, he concedes the bills and extent of restoration almost convinced him to sell it, multiple times, but he could never bring himself to do so.

His commitment was rewarded in 2008 when his boat was the featured craft at the Les Cheneaux wood boat show. “There was no boat like this in the islands,” McMillan says, one hand resting lightly on the mahogany steering wheel, the other on the chrome throttle lever. The twin 350-horse diesels push us onward with an authoritative hum.

“I wanted to bring something back, something from the golden days of wood boats.” Today, as he eases the immaculate cruiser through the island passageways, he says, “I still can’t believe it.”

Not to get too deep-thought about it, but I ask McMillan if he can discuss what the wood boat thing means to him. He concedes it all goes way back, but it’s also pretty straightforward. “I go out to the green bouy and watch the sunset. Maybe
smoke a cigar. Have a drink. Be in a beautiful boat with friends. That’s pretty much it for me,” he says. He pauses, reflects some more.

“Last night, I got in the boat about 1 a.m., it was clear, and I drove out to the bouy alone. It was a beautiful night. There were lots of meteors, the Perseids meteor shower, and there wasn’t a single other boat out there. I stayed out till about 2:30 and then went in. It’s about that.”

Later on, back in Hessel, I share a glass of wine with Elizabeth Fels at the picnic table in front of her bookstore. The August evening stays warm, and the village has gone quiet. We can see boats in the harbor at the end of her street.

“You couldn’t live here without being in a wood boat on regular basis, without thinking about it,” she says. “Being without a wood boat is like being without a dog—a terrible feeling.”

Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. [email protected]

Wooden boat feature on Les Cheneaux Islands in Northern MichiganThis article first ran in the August, 2010 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get that issue now!

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