A Family Boating Adventure To Beaver Island's Outer Islands: Garden and High Islands

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. The smell of basil and mint plants in pots on the deck overpowers the now empty bottle of bug spray rolling around the bottom of our raft.

“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 intothe horizon.

toward a broken, half-sunken dock that we find with help of“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 the map. A trail leads us to a dilapidated state cabin that servesas 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 hypnoticrace 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 wivestale 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, Iunderstand what it means to find joy in life’s flow, however its course may change.

Kate Bassett writes from Harbor Springs. [email protected]

This article first appeared in the July 2010 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get the July issue or click here to subscribe.

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