Wooden Boats, Lifeblood of Les Cheneaux Islands in Northern Michigan

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.

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