Northern Michigan Vacation: Destination North Channel

Northern Michigan Vacation: Life, I’m learning, is full of funny contradictions. I love spending a week in the rugged wild of Lake Huron’s North Channel, but when departure day hits for my family’s annual jaunt to the 163 miles of sparsely populated waters, the only thing I can think about is one last vanilla latte. Forget prepping for the Zen of nature with yoga on the back deck or one more quick dip in Little Traverse Bay. Just give me my espresso, stat.

I think about this while pulling away from the docks of our hometown, Harbor Springs. My three children, two in life jackets, our oldest in junior Ray-Bans—yes, we’ve hit that age of coolness—are brimming with start-of-trip energy. They hustle from one side of the deck to the other, peering down into deep blue water and up at faded blue sky, unsure of where to direct their excitement. Here we are, leaving one of the country’s most spectacular places, embarking on an equally amazing adventure, and I’m almost too engrossed in coffee to notice.

Oy. Most days, I strive to focus on the important stuff of life. But I’m human. I lose sight of what it means to call Up North home and sometimes, it takes more than the endlessness of Lake Michigan to shift perspectives. It’s why I’m grateful for this trip each summer, arcing eastward over the tip of the Lower Peninsula, from our Lake Michigan to the less familiar waters of the North Channel along Lake Huron’s northernmost rim. Canoe paddles sliced through this sweetwater sea long before the first European here—Étienne Brûlé—canoed it in 1618. It’s a place to reconnect with spiritual or visceral or historical roots, those things tying us to four seasons of Great Lakes.

So, as we ease out of the harbor, I take a breath. It’s shallow at first. The wind carries scentless warmth of nowhere. Land falls away to our right as we work our way up along a shore rolling with dunes and colored in myriad variations of green from white pine and red pine and red oak and sugar maple and black ash and beech and …Time, my husband, Justin, likes to remind me, is almost a nonentity on the lakes. Formed thousands of years ago by retreating glaciers, this liquid horizon has cradled Native Americans, early explorers, and by the mid-1600’s, settlers who defined the borders of the state I call home.

For the next few hours, I alternate between catnaps and following the waves. We bob up and down through Gray’s Reef—rough even on calm days—and before I know it, we’re facing the stretch of green steel that divides the two lakes. It’s tradition for my kids and I to yell “Hello!” to the underbellies of cars seen through the grate of the Mackinac Bridge. The noise of wheels and motors and rumbling echoes down as an answer. Today, I’m quieter than in trips past. I’m watching how fast traffic is moving. Vehicles race from north to south, south to north. I can almost picture the drivers, hands gripped tight, eyes forward. They are missing the water. Meanwhile, my husband has one hand on the helm, one hand in the air. He’s half-dancing to a favorite tune by Seth Bernard and May Erlewine, looking over his shoulder at the endless blue, and us.

Once we are beyond the bridge, beyond Mackinac Island, almost to Drummond Island and DeTour Passage, I tell my children how Brûlé, who lived among the natives, scouted rivers and forests of the North Channel, which officially begins near Sault Ste. Marie. We laugh about Jean Nicolet, the next European to pass through the Straits in 1634, who figured he was well on his way to the riches of the Orient. My firstborn says Brûlé maybe wasn’t searching for anything except knowledge of the land, true to the heart of natives. It’s a moment I savor, even if it means swallowing one of those funky history facts: The natives eventually killed Brûlé because they suspected he was collaborating with their enemy, the Iroquois. Instead, we all—even the cool Ray-Banned one—settle into a game of explorers, pretending to discover this untamed waterway. We’ve entered the promised land.

Truthfully, the first time my husband announced our arrival in the North Channel, many trips ago, I looked around and thought, “Huh?” I’d long heard people from Harbor Springs rave about this mythical place, and considering the jaw-dropping nature of our own waters, I’d come with high expectations. What I saw? The same sort of shoreline that exists five minutes from home. Justin grinned and said, “Just wait.” All these years later, the wait isn’t any easier. My eyes scan the wide channel ahead, searching for the first glimpse of rocky bluffs that rise nearly 600 feet above the lake and welcome us to Gore Bay and the tiny harbor there.

Located on the north shore of western Manitoulin Island, this little Lake Huron port town sits snug between two towering tree-lined cliffs. With a year-round population of just 900, it has a feeling we Harbor Springs people know well: Gore Bay is the kind of place where the same characters welcome you season after season. As soon as we’re tied up, the kids want to head to Rocky Raccoon’s, a giant octagon-shaped bar and restaurant. It’s just a few steps away from our dock, and they love the never-ending porch and owner/chef Robin Pradhan, who hails originally from Katmandu, Nepal. It’s hard to keep them aboard, but since Canadian customs officers (and U.S. officers too, for that matter) don’t take kindly to disembarking without approval, we wait while Justin steps off to use the Can-Pass customs phone. The scents of curry and maple-spiced bread waft from next door. From somewhere in the opposite direction, I smell a barbecue kicking up. Two dragonflies whiz around my head twice and disappear inland. And moments later, Justin is back, a stack of five passports in his hand and a smile on his face.

We spend the night here, but there isn’t a ton to do in Gore Bay, and that’s just fine with us. I once looked at the city’s website before leaving home, and marveled at promises of public beach, summer plays and an “infamous” bird-watching boardwalk. To date, I have never found any of these things, though I admit I’m not really looking. Instead, this is the spot where we get in our North Channel groove. We stay up late counting shooting stars. We wander to the roadside farmers market to buy strawberry jam and wilted greens. Smells of wet lines, weathered wood, fish and damp earth mix together, calling up memories of each time we’ve passed this way. At first, just Justin and me, and then, with one, two, and now three children sprawling in the bunks and fold-down tables of our floating home away from home.

The sun is already baking on the fiberglass when we begin our journey to Killarney, one of the North Channel’s most famous and beloved places to dock. It’s a long reach of Lake Huron from our overnight port of Gore Bay—some 49 nautical miles—but it’s where the channel’s surroundings morph into towering bluffs and islets of pink-red granite. With 19 miles to go, we pass under the bridge at Little Current, the only connection Manitoulin Island has with Ontario’s mainland. The kids gather in hopes of watching it swing. Built in 1913 for railroad traffic, it was converted for cars after World War II. It’s still only one lane, with alternating traffic, and swings open for boats to pass for 15 minutes on the hour during the summer season. Some days, you can see cars snaking on both sides for miles waiting to cross, and offshore, boats do the same. There is no hurry-up in the North Channel. Waiting becomes just a part of the slowing down, the reason we are here.

Little Current offers the last “big” grocery store (which is actually quite little), but we don’t stop, since I’ve packed the fridge with farmers market finds from home, and jammed the freezer to the point of barely closing with meals I prepared before launching from Harbor Springs. We keep moving, floating forward with the current into Lands Down Passage, the last stretch of travel to Killarney.

People wave from the helms of small sailboats and luxury yachts, shout greetings into the breeze. There’s a spirit shared among wanderers cruising these Lake Huron waters where cell phone signal bars drop to zero, and the Internet remains a myth.

Restless, my kids see every island as a playground. Their desire to climb and explore on land outweighs the joy of soaking in the scenery from a boat. Justin stations them as lookouts for submerged rocks—the biggest danger for boaters in the North Channel—and I watch their eyes squint, concentrating hard on the steely water for hints of shadows or brown.

Today’s destination, the harbor of Killarney, sits at the end of a granite peninsula, and just off shore is the four-square-mile George’s Island. Soon, we’re entering the narrow strip of water between them, with George Island’s green hillsides to the south, the red rock shore of Killarney to the north. A kayaker passes us on our starboard side, a sea plane whirs past our port. Despite the busyness of this cut, people are a much rarer commodity than wildlife here. We’re just a few miles from Killarney Provincial Park, where 4,000 square miles of protected wilderness spread northward.

As we pull up to the Sportsman’s Inn—our home base for the next two days—Justin lets out a laugh when he sees owners Rochelle and Kevin McConnell waving at us from the dock. Kevin’s thick gold bracelet and Rochelle’s chunky diamond necklace reflect in the midafternoon sun. The couple, who bought and restored the inn, look … well, completely out of place. Her bleached blond hair and four-inch wedge shoes scream city, but as she rushes to help us tie up, gushing about how she’s thrilled to share this place with others, I’m reminded of another North Channel truth. Like the 30,000 islands of quartzite and granite—many no bigger than tabletops and sprinkled liked tossed rocks in surrounding Georgian Bay—this town is special because it’s made up of a constellation of small wonders.

We quickly get situated and head to our favorite food stop, Herbert’s Fisheries. To say there’s fresh fish and chips coming out of this bright red bus is an understatement. Herbert’s is permanently parked along the Killarney Channel, and fish boats pull up and offload catch almost daily. As we eat our fill, lips glistening a little with grease, a guy with a long white beard sits down on the picnic bench beside us. He could have been the cover guy for The Old Man and the Sea, crinkled crows-feet around his sharp blue eyes and tan, weathered skin.

“You folks just got into town?” he asks. His voice makes me think of the craggy cliffs of neighboring Covered Portage, where we’ll go bouldering later—rough but beautiful.

“We are.” I smile, absentmindedly pulling my hair into a ponytail. “How did you know?”

He doesn’t answer. Only grins back and says, “I’m lucky enough to live here all year. Enjoy your stay.” Walking over to my children, he kneels down and, with a solemn face, whispers, “There’s magic here, you know. Just watch for it.”

And so we do. We watch for it as we lie on the bow, rocking in the black Lake Huron night, and see a sky alive with stars. We listen for it while we’re hiking cairn-marked trails, calls and caws of hundreds of birds echoing through the evergreens. In our bones, there’s a charge only the natural world delivers. Magic, indeed.

My kids hunt for eastern rattlesnakes, elk, moose and black bear (giving them a pamphlet on potentially dangerous human/wildlife interactions is like giving a dog a jar of peanut butter). We rent kayaks and water bikes from the inn, eat ice cream cones and skin knees on rocky climbs. When it’s time to say goodbye to dock life and hello to days of anchoring in hidden gunk holes and coves, we have breakfast beside a black baby grand piano in the Sportsman. My daughter plunks at the keys, but no one seems to mind. And then we cast off, ready to settle in amid other boats with hooks dropped in mucky bottoms.

There are so many anchorages in the North Channel, choosing a spot for the night depends on wind, weather and how many people you do or don’t want to see. For us, the next few days are spent bopping into nooks and crannies. We eat wild blueberries in the shade of marshy hardwood forests. We clamber up huge bluffs (where I yell at my children, “Be careful! Slow down! Don’t fall!”). Bonfire spots on the rocks are discovered and used for s’mores, capping off evenings of swimming, fishing, getting caught in bursts of rain. There is a rhythm here that rises with the sun and rocks us to sleep not long after dusk. Deep breaths come without thinking, as if my body has been waiting for my brain to catch up.

It’s the secret of the North Channel. To reconnect with the very inhale of earth and fresh water. We pull it inside without noticing at first. On our last morning on the hook, I sit on the edge of the boat and watch wisps of fog hover just above the water line. Everything is still. Somewhere in the distance, the stuttering cry of a crane cuts into crisp air. I sip strong coffee, steaming from the carafe of my travel French press. When we round Harbor Point in two days, I’ll carry the Zen of this moment to the Great Lake port we are lucky enough to call home.

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