Where Wooden Boats Rule: Explore the World of Michigan’s Les Cheneaux Islands

Within the hidden bays and intimate passageways of Les Cheneaux’s 32 islands, mahogany boats still set the summer vibe.

A couple of summers ago I launched a kayak in Cedarville, a tiny harbor in the Les Cheneaux Archipelago, to go on a three-day island camping trip with my son Wyatt. We weren’t on the water but a few minutes when a beautiful wooden powerboat cruised by, its throaty rumble rolling across the waves, the varnished mahogany glowing a red-brown in the afternoon sun, the wake v-ing out behind—leaving us, of course, bobbing in the roll of it.

Then, minutes later, another wood boat motored by, this one even more striking—long, slim and low in the water, a sleek rounded rear deck (that I’ve since learned is called a barrel-back), three cockpits, one with grocery bags visible. And again, that throaty rumble that sounded nothing like the boats I was familiar with. Shortly, another and another, and well, you get the idea, all weekend long we shared the water with some of the most beautiful boats I’d ever seen.

Wyatt and I experienced a bounty of nature that weekend, paddling and camping around the intricate shores of this 32-island archipelago, but the manmade sight and sound of wood boats passing this way and that through the channels was something that stuck, too.

I’d heard many times about the wood boats of Les Cheneaux, and I knew about the annual wood boat show—one of the biggest anywhere, despite its remote location. But I’d always assumed the boats were driven the way people drive antique cars—kept in the garage and putt-putted in the 4th of July parade, hauled out buffed and polished for a big show (Don’t Touch!), used to give guests a cautious and boring ride, and only when it’s sunny.

I was so surprised, then, that this place, so naturally alluring with its multitude of low islands and intimate bays and maze of passages, also had this other component, like a wood boat museum escaped, got loose, gone wild. Hundreds of America’s most lovely boats, many from the 1920’s and 1930’s, roaming around one of America’s most alluring water landscapes and often employed for the most mundane of tasks—of course fishing and water skiing, but even more often carrying a lady to get a hairdo, fetching groceries from the mainland, hauling garbage, of all things.

Eventually I came to view Les Cheneaux not as a beautiful place that had some wood boats, but more as an expansive and beguiling refuge where the thing being protected was wood boats, and there was an entire community conspiring to keep the boats not just preserved, but actually alive on the water.

Each person seemed to play a role. Some people had the resources to own boats and to pay to have them restored. Other people had the skill to take a rotting boat apart one plank at a time and put it back together better than new—finished with 15 coats of flawless varnish. Others knew how to teach wood boat building, and run a school. Others had PR and events skills and could launch a multi-day wood boat show, the Annual Wooden Boat Show and Festival of Arts, one of the largest wooden boat shows in the world.

The part about people conspiring to keep the boats alive was something I only came to grasp later, after Elizabeth Fels, owner of The Village Idiom bookstore in Hessel, agreed to guide me to some of the pieces and people that make up the wood boat culture of Les Cheneaux. “I’ll try to get you on some boats,” she said. Naturally, she had my attention.

Talk to somebody, anybody, about wood boats around Hessel and Cedarville, and one fact is certain to emerge in less than five minutes: Eugene James Mertaugh opened the first Chris Craft dealership in the world here in Hessel, in 1926. Chris Craft is the biggest name in wood boats, and the shop is still open. I decide to start my exploration there, so she leads me from her bookstore down the gentle slope to Hessel’s docks and the door of E.J. Mertaugh Boatworks, which still sells new boats, used boats and restores boats, and has been owned by Brad and Shelly Koster since 2000.

On this bright August morning, sunshine bounces from the harbor through the showroom’s glass front, illuminating the honey-toned wood paneling in watery light. Brad leans on the counter talking to a 40-something man in bermuda shorts and a blue Polo shirt. I hear the words carburetor, gas tank, varnish, and eventually the ending line. “Well, tell him if he wants to turn it into cash we’ll take it for parts.” Behind him, on shelves along the wall, are the kind of parts I’m guessing he’s referring to. Red running lights in sleek chrome housings, speedometers, a horn.

The customer leaves and Brad sits down to discuss some of what he knows of Les Cheneaux’s wood boat legacy. “Back in the 20’s this place was booming,” he says. “Several families had cottages the size of resorts. These were families with Eastern and Midwestern industrial wealth, and they had an appetite for nice things.” One of the nicest, most tantalizing and glamorous things introduced then was the wooden power boat. “The engines were finally reliable, and they could go 30 miles per hour, which was unheard of,” Brad says.

Based in Algonac, Michigan, near Detroit, Chris Craft borrowed mass production techniques and engine design from the automobile manufacturers nearby, and became the nation’s biggest producer of wood boats. Back then, when trailering was sketchy on washboard gravel roads, the Mertaughs would mostly just drive the boats north on Lake Huron, a process locals refer to as “running them up on their bottoms.” Although that carried risks as well, because captains often had to dodge logs—sometimes entire rafts of them—from logging operations.

After World War II, the market burst wide open as the sport moved from elite to everyman. “Between the Depression and World War II, there were 15 years where people just didn’t do much, so there was a lot of pent up demand,” Brad says.

In addition, the efficiencies of mass production, honed during wartime manufacturing, put the boats in the price range where many average people could afford them. This was the golden era of the wood boat business, and boathouses popped up along the Les Cheneaux shores. Boathouses are essential for wood boats because without them, the sun destroys the varnish, and the boats quickly rot.

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.

Soon, I’m sitting on a boathouse deck with Al and Pam Reilly and their daughter, Sarah. The Reillys didn’t have a place on Marquette Island until 1987, but their deep love of wood boats helped them quickly assimilate. This afternoon Al has a big book in hand, each page-spread a different boat that Chris Craft made, covering 70 years of production. As he discusses minutiae of various models, a boat motors by in the channel.

“That was a 22-foot utility,” Pam says. Often she identifies boats just by the sound of their engines. When discussing a wood boat around here, I learn that unless otherwise specified, it’s a Chris Craft.

Al bought the family’s first wood boat, a 17-footer, back in 1983 while traveling in Connecticut and hauled it back home to Cincinnati. “It was pretty,” he says, “but “like all boaters, you always want a bigger, faster boat.” Plus he wanted to restore one. “There’s something about restoring your own mortality when you bring your own boat back.”

Eventually they set their sights on Chris Craft’s sexiest wood boat of all, a triple-cockpit model; people call them “triples.” They named it Cherokee, because the woman they bought it from was of Cherokee descent. Al squeezed the triple into his garage in a Cincinnati suburb, but still, a third of it stuck out the door. He spent untold hours stripping the boat, dismayed to find 10 layers of aqua-green marine paint on the bottom.

“He would come into the house looking like the Jolly Green Giant,” Pam says.

Within a couple of years, the Reillys got involved in a somewhat clandestine event that has become part of Les Cheneaux lore: a 1-mile drag race of triples, usually three of them, but some years up to five. Date and location are agreed upon and passed by word of mouth. Spectators arrive on boats of their own to watch the bit of 1930’s Great Gatsby-esque time travel on the water.

Well, sort of 1930’s. What spectators can’t see is the modern arms race of horsepower that goes on in the engine compartments. The participants have each swapped out and/or super-charged their engines over the years. “At one point I was told I better improve the speed of the boat if I was going to stay a member of the family,” Al says, and casts a wry smile at his wife. Al has won most of the races, but in 2008, a guy came in with a 710 horsepower Ellison racing engine. Al’s voice takes on a soft note of resignation as he says his own engine puts out 525 horses.

Up here, people trace the lives of old boats like others do family genealogy, the Reillys tell me. “They know which boathouse a boat lived in. Who owned it. With every boat, somebody has a story, and they take on real personality,” Al says. For locals, “it’s a thrill to get a boat back that was in the family 60 or 70 years ago.”

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.”

Featured in the August 2010 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.


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