Mom’s in a storm-inspired funk. Dad presses on through the waves. This boating family discovers solace and shelter within the haunting beauty of the Beaver Island archipelago.
I’m in a bad mood. Never mind the fact that I’m on vacation, cutting through the dark August blue of Lake Michigan on a borrowed boat. I’m too busy stewing to notice how the flat water reflects sunlight like a million mirrors. My three children are napping, stacked dominos beside the helm that my husband, Justin, mans with a smile. It’s a scene that should bring happy exhales, not narrow-eyed grimaces.
I’m thinking about the steep limestone bluffs of Garden Peninsula along the northern rim of the lake, the place we were supposed to visit before the weather gods put the kibosh on our plans.
This trip—one that included us first crossing the mighty lake to the shores of Wisconsin—began with three failed attempts to go beyond the protective arm of our home harbor in Little Traverse Bay. Angry waves had battered against the hatches, and my fists ached from clutching little life-jacketed bodies as we finally worked our way down the coast for unscheduled overnights and arguments over where we’d head on the way back.
Yesterday, Justin peeked up from a spread of paper and electronic charts and said our course was now set for Garden Island, part of an archipelago that we can see from the high roads back home. He smiled as if I’d jump for joy visiting a place so close to our own bay. A place known for having snakes, mosquitoes and ghosts as its only residents. I shot him a dirty look, crossed my arms, and have remained foul ever since.
We have only two days before we must return to the docks. My stomach aches in disappointment at the thought. I almost ask to just keep moving east, toward home. Except I don’t, because the boat is slowing as we round the corner of High Island, our first stop on the revised itinerary.
Just four miles west of richly storied and large Beaver Island, High’s secluded shoreline dispels my sour spirit the moment I glimpse the run of beach. A long, horseshoe-shaped harbor with white, rocky sands gives way to dune scrub that in turn gives way to cedar stands. This state-owned island has the feel of a well-guarded secret. I shrug sheepishly at my husband, who cuts the motor and drops anchor, graciously ignoring my sulk.
We wake our children. I watch them grin as they take in the turquoise and aqua shallows and the sudden change to blue-black waters that comes with mysterious depths. For a moment, we feel like we’re the first to discover this place, jutting up in dune plains from the belly of Lake Michigan. Laughter and grill smells floating toward us from a group of beached boats remind us otherwise.
Moments later two kayakers paddle by, gear strapped to their boats and floppy hats hiding their eyes. The paddlers, likely traversing the many small islands easily accessed from Beaver, wave before turning their attention back to stroking alongside more than 3,000 acres of blown sand and scraggly trees.
We follow suit, clamoring into our dinghy and heading to the beach. It’s a spot that boasts breeding grounds for piping plovers and would-be pirates; legend claims Beaver Island’s fallen King James, a renegade Mormon who set up a kingdom there in the 19th century, has his royal treasure buried here.
“Treasure?” My oldest, Noah, says, his blue eyes matching the lapping waves. He’s been building cairns, marking his presence with smooth stones. The possibility of gold and rubies sparks a new energy, and he sets off down the beach, a pair of terns squawking behind him.
I sit and sift sand in my fingers. Justin disappears into the meadow above us, searching for trails. Partly, I’m still wishing we’d gone farther north. Mostly, I’m just quiet, listening for the voice of this island and its curious history—from glacial beginnings to the strange Millenarian sect that once called High home. Instead, I hear Max, my middle born, break into giggles as he cannonballs rocks into the water, scattering a school of minnows and splashing his sister. It makes me wonder about the Native mothers from fishing families that last lived here. I imagine they too watched their children fall in love with the lake again and again on this stretch of beach.
An enormous horsefly lands on my knee, and I scream. I remember friends saying this is not the place to go if you have a phobia of large insects. Justin comes running, until he sees me in a swat-and-dodge battle against the enormous black bug.
“Find anything?” I ask with a frown.
“Just a meadow,” he says, measuring my reaction.
“Well we might as well go look,” I sigh, annoyed that hiking seems out of the picture.
We clamor one by one up a small dune into the knee-high grasses that scare my toddler, Elizabeth, into my arms. The ground is specked with rust and green mosses, the field splattered with low bushes, purple blossoms, and young trees. I turn circles a few times, finding no break in the underbrush.
I start to head back to the beach when a spear-sized stick whizzes past me. Whipping around, I half expect to see a crazy-eyed hermit or apparitions of the fatally wounded King James, whose crew supposedly stopped here as he made his way from Beaver to Wisconsin to seek medical treatment.
“Watch out mama!” Max shrieks with excitement, racing by to duck behind a bush. “Noah and I are being the king’s men. We’re protecting the treasure!”
They go on like this for hours, lost in a world where sticks become swords and lines drawn in sandy ground become maps. Justin and I sit in the space between them and the lake, looking at the low-lying islands in the distance and growing waves that move toward us.
“Maybe we didn’t need to hike after all,” Justin says. I notice the way the fading daylight colors his face, warm and glowing.
“Yes, playing soldiers for the odd-ball Mormon polygamist king is a much better idea,” I say.
As the sun edges west, I remind Justin dusk brings bugs and wind brings bigger waves. We dinghy back to the boat and pull anchor, pointing our bow toward the quiet haven of Garden Island’s harbor.
Determined to explore the heart of at least one of the islands, we settle the big boat and set off again. The hum of the dinghy’s motor matches the hum of a slightly disconcerting symphony of insects. The wetlands and swampy shores prove too hard to penetrate in dying light. I think of the rows of spirit houses I’ve heard of that denote a handful of the 3,500 Anishinaabeg graves found on this land. We can’t see beyond the tall reed grasses, but I feel the presence of that sacred ground all the same. I think too of the nonvenomous snakes—rumored to have once numbered in the millions—that are said to occupy the woods and waters of Garden.
Back in the dinghy, we motor out of the safety of the harbor to bob aimlessly in line with the setting sun. Orange and red and yellow bleeds into the sky. I peek over the side in time to see a bass flick its tail and vanish into the green growth underwater.
A small fire glows on shore to our left, where a group of kayakers have pitched tents for the night. The sound of a harmonica echoes from their camp. Noah yawns. We head back. Soon, our children are sleeping again, legs tangled together on the long berth that has become their collective cradle.
Justin and I sip wine in the relatively bug-proof enclosure that zips up the sides of the hull. We’re staring into the darkness that bounces between a heavy billow of clouds and inky black water.
I tell him about the Ojibwe that once lived on the island. He tells me about Garden’s old fishing town that was, as if by divine joke, named Success. We muse about how some settlements simply die away, left to history to be remembered, or not. That night, we sleep like the dead.
A buzz in my ear wakes me at daylight. Making a mental note to lather everyone in bug spray, I get up to jump into the shallow water. It only takes two cold seconds to remember I forgot to look for snakes. I’m back on the swim platform in a blink, my skin glinting like a fish out of water in the early morning sun.
Surveying the protected anchorage, I’m reminded of a favorite North Channel gunk hole. There is awe to be found in this little pocket of mostly state-owned land just a mile from Beaver Island.
“It’s no wonder,” I say to Justin, who is swimming laps around the boat without worry of snakes, “that people come to camp on these beaches. You don’t need a big boat or even one with sail or motor power, and you’re close enough to land that if you get in trouble, help is near. The easy access alone makes it worth exploring.”
We rally the kids to search for a Department of Natural Resources dock that’s supposed to be lurking on shore. An hour later, they’re whining for food, and I’m whining about bugs, and Justin is ready to throw us all overboard. A man emerges on the bow of a wooden green sailboat that snuck into the harbor overnight. He waves us over, and we tie up alongside planks that look hand-sanded and painted with care. Grateful for the offer to borrow a map of the island, we clamor aboard.
“This place is mystical you know,” the man says, motioning toward the island. “Inhabited by spirits. It’s always been thought of as holy, and some say that is why there are so many snakes here.” My boys look at each other with wide eyes, gauging whether they should be scared or intrigued.
“Well, we’ve not actually seen any snakes now, have we?” his wife asks, handing each boy a still-warm chocolate chip cookie.
We talk a while longer, listening to the couple’s story. The downturned economy forced early retirements in their hometown of Grand Rapids, and it sparked a long-dormant dream of selling everything they owned, buying a boat, and sailing into the horizon.
“We had to re-plot our course,” they say, taking turns filling in pieces of adventures they’ve had and those yet to come.
I listen to their story with a mix of envy and gratitude. Justin squeezes my hand. Parting with our new friends, we steer toward a broken, half-sunken dock that we find with help of the map. A trail leads us to a dilapidated state cabin that serves as emergency shelter and odd junk in the woods, like a bicycle that seems to be growing in the limbs of a tree. We move on, toward the far northwest corner of the harbor. A group of hikers passes in the opposite direction. They are on the island in search of wild berries.
“Don’t stop along the way,” they warn. “The skeeters are swarming.”
I give Justin a wary look, thinking of West Nile and children pocked with bites. We opt to head back to the boat and layer up, despite the rising temperatures. It is a good thing, because the minute we move inland, a black cloud of bugs catches up with us.
“Run!” I yell, scooping Elizabeth up and shoving the boys farther down the trail. We move, a breakneck pace in a hypnotic race toward an unknown destination. I feel like we’ve been going for miles when I see something move in the path up ahead. A snake darts behind a tree. I freeze, somehow expecting the ground to come alive with a million legless reptiles.
“Mom, look,” Noah says, his war cries against the mosquitoes suddenly hushed. Laid out before us in the woods are a handful of spirit houses. The small wooden structures are mostly falling apart, some no more than two boards leaning against each other. There are medicine pouches hanging on a few, and feathers, stones, and dream catchers are scattered in the leaves. The land is uneven here.
“Graves,” Justin whispers, scanning the small rolls in the earth. We don’t have to remind our children to be respectful. They fall into a silent reverence, and we follow suit.
I’m not sure how much time passes before the blood-sucking bugs return, but two bites to the neck tell me it is time to leave. We turn without words to run back to the beach and don’t talk until we reach our boat.
The rest of the day is spent lolling about, casting fishing lines without bait and jumping in and out of cold water. A kayak tour from Beaver comes and goes, the only hint that we aren’t days away from civilization. As night falls, the sky grows purple. The moon rises from behind a silhouette of black trees.
I itch my legs. They are marked with mosquito bites, and I dig my nail in to each red bump, forming an ‘X’—an old wives tale remedy to stop the itching. I wonder if I would have liked our original destination more. I’m not sure of my answer, but settle into the comfort of what I do know: the endless waters of Lake Michigan teem with stories. When we’re lucky, we are open enough to scoop them between our palms and drink them in, as I do now. Moon water cupped in my hands, I understand what it means to find joy in life’s flow, however, its course may change.
Kate Bassett writes from Harbor Springs.
Northern Michigan Island Adventures
- The Keeper of Grand Traverse County’s Power Island
- Grand Island: A Biking & Camping Getaway on Lake Superior
- Vision Quest: World Class Carp Fishing on Beaver Island
- A Family-Friendly Island Escape: 36 Hours on South Manitou Island
- Exploring the Lost Coast: An Extreme Bike Adventure on Drummond Island