When a friend from Les Cheneaux went to visit Bonnie Mikkelsen, a lifelong Les Cheneaux summer resident, at her home in Seattle in early 2005, what the two mostly talked about was back in Michigan, specifically how they might give a boost to the flagging economy of Les Cheneaux and its two tiny towns, Cedarville and Hessel. Thing was, they didn’t want to do just anything. They wanted to start something that would honor the history of this archipelago just east of the Mackinac Bridge, something that wouldn’t detract from the way of life there, something that would strike that tricky balance of building economy without simultaneously ruining the spirit of the place.

They decided to look at some of the creative economic development ideas being used around Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and San Juan Islands, like Les Cheneaux, a sparsely populated archipelago. They scheduled a brainstorm meeting with a friend of Bonnie’s who knew a lot about the area. She suggested they should meet up at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding in nearby Port Hadlock, and go from there. Turned out, that was as far as they had to look. If a boat school could work there, why not in Les Cheneaux?

Two and a half years later, in July 2007, the Great Lakes Boat Building School opened for business. When it did, it was building upon a wooden boat heritage here that stretches back thousands of years, to the birch bark canoes of the Ojibwe and Hurons, the French Jesuits, and explorers with their wooden bateaux, and later the Mackinaw boats. The first Chris-Craft dealership in the nation was opened here in Hessel, and hundreds of classic wooden boats still ply these waters. Wooden boats are woven deep into the DNA of Les Cheneaux.

I head to the school on a sunny mid-December day to spend the afternoon looking around and chatting with staff and students. The main facility, a 12,000-square-foot building custom-designed to be a boatbuilding school, sits on a marshy shore of reeds and cattails on a small peninsula of Cedarville Bay. The peninsula is flanked by the two largest islands in the archipelago—Marquette Island and La Salle Island—each name itself an echo of maritime heritage. Father Marquette navigated among these islands to make the first maps of the area; La Salle’s legendary Griffon ship was the first large craft to sail the Upper Great Lakes.

As I walk to the door, I hear the whine of saws, the pounding of hammers, and I catch a whiff of sawdust. In the central workshop, I meet program director and head instructor Patrick Mahon, a master boat builder with 35 years experience in boatbuilding, yacht joinery, and teaching. He has a bushy walrus mustache and a soft-spoken, friendly demeanor, which is, everyone seems to agree, one of his great assets as a teacher.

A group of first-year students is busy sanding their 16-foot motor launch, the hull of which has blotches of paint on it that look a bit like blue clouds floating in brown sky. I wonder if they’ve decided to do a custom paint job until instructor Adam Burks explains that they are fairing the hull, making it perfectly smooth by painting it blue, then sanding it to find the low spots.

Patrick takes me up into the loft, where we find Peter Marshall, rigging expert from Seattle. He’s worked on all four Pirates of the Caribbean movies. He’s showing the students how to do traditional rigging with galvanized wire for the Gartside cutter, a gaff-rigged, 19-foot sailboat the second-year students will finish in the spring. “Peter is hand-splicing eyes,” Patrick explains. “Then it’s all parceled and served.” None of this makes sense to me, so I ask him to explain. “This is the parceling here, which is old-fashioned tarred black tape. And then the serving is this line that gets wrapped around it. And then it all gets coated again with either paint or a varnishlike coating, and that seals it all up and keeps the wire from getting weathered.”

To my unschooled eye, it looks like Marshall is just wrapping one line around another. I say it doesn’t look much like a specialized skill. “It’s a lot like sanding wood. People think you just grab some sandpaper and go at it. You can mess it up pretty good if you don’t know what you’re doing,” Mahon says.

As sounds of saws and hammers echo up from the ground floor shop, I notice the mast that will be supported by the rigging sitting on saw horses against the wall. Made from a single piece of Sitka spruce, it’s flexible and tapers toward the top. The varnish—called “bright work” by insiders—has already been applied. The spar is smooth and lustrous, and ready for rigging and sails. The sails it’ll fly were made at Irish Boat Shop in Harbor Springs, and Patrick took the students down for a day to participate in the sewing. He wants to expose his students to a wide variety of skills, establish a solid foundation that can then be applied in different ways and built upon.

The second-year students always do a wood-epoxy composite, or cold-molded, hull. This is contemporary wooden boatbuilding, many techniques of which were pioneered by the Gougeon brothers and West Systems in Bay City, who are generous supporters of the school.

In the middle of the loft floor there is a huge piece of white paper that looks something like a blueprint. This is the lofting—full-scale drawings—for John Hacker’s 1923 26-foot Gold Cup racer, which the second-year students are finishing. With only a reprint from a 1923 MotorBoating Magazine article to go on, they lofted the lines of the sleek runabout, then made changes to the bottom to increase its speed and make it run smoother. The boat is being built on commission, so it’s already spoken for.

I ask Patrick about his teaching philosophy, and he says, “I see wooden boat building as a craft, as opposed to simply a trade. A craftsman needs to know the history and traditions of his craft to fully appreciate all aspects of what he is doing. I try to get this across to students along with the technical training.” And what a history he has to draw from. An astonishing number of the pioneers of 20th century wooden boat building worked in the Great Lakes, most of them near Detroit. Gar Wood, Christopher Columbus Smith, John Hacker, Nelson Zimmer. Many of them ran in the same circles as Great Lakes industrialists and engineers, who were constantly tinkering with engines. “They were basically a bunch of gearheads,” Pat says. “They just wanted to see how many things they could put engines into, and how fast they could go.”

Patrick and I leave the loft and head to the other side of the building, where the classrooms, finishing room, and kitchen are. In the library, I meet Bud McIntire, perched at a computer doing research. Bud is a former boat school student in his early 60s who recently returned to join the staff as the student services coordinator. He has a soft North Carolina accent and a wispy white mustache with a goatee. Bud spent 35 years as an architect, and he was good at it—reaching the point where he led a team of 56 designers, drafters, and staff at a large firm—but eventually, he burned out. It was time to do something different. The question was, what? “After about 18 months of looking around and sorta wandering in the wilderness,” Bud tells me, “I finally figured out that wooden boatbuilding was what I wanted to do.”

He was in a position to visit all his prospective schools, so I ask him why he chose this one. This was the only school that taught traditional and contemporary wooden boatbuilding in the same year. He had an intuitive sense about the instructors here. Smaller class sizes. Smaller projects that allow you to participate in the entire process from start to finish. But it was the location that sealed it. “I thought about going to a school in Rhode Island, but it’s in a real urban area and there’s just a whole lot of other stuff to do, and I wanted—I won’t say monastic—but I really wanted a focused exercise. I didn’t want any outside distractions.”

Why wooden boatbuilding? He thinks a few seconds. “I mean, you see a few beautiful wooden boats and it’s hard to get ’em out of your mind.” And he’s right. As Patrick and I walk back into the shop, we stop and take a good long look at the Gartside cutter. I’ve been thinking about that boat ever since.

Full disclosure, the young boat school has not always sailed in smooth waters. A couple years back the school was struggling. Fundraising had been a challenge from the get-go—no surprise, considering the school began near the dawn of the Great Recession. Changes would have to be made to ensure the long-term viability of the school.

The troubles brought about a much-needed restructuring, but also something else, something maybe even more important. Supporters started coming out of the proverbial woodwork. They volunteered time and sweat, they wrote checks, they donated supplies. Tough times galvanized the community, and it became clear just how many people had come to love the boat school.

Back out in the shop I start chatting with Mark Collins, a 22-year-old with clumps of hair sprouting out from under his hat, a Cheshire Cat smile, and a stoked demeanor. He is walking around making small adjustments to the frame of the Hacker runabout to make it plumb. He’s from “just down below, in Alpena.” Below meaning south of the Mackinac Bridge. He and his dad moved to the area a few years back looking for work. “I was lucky enough to get a job through Bonnie [Mikkelsen] at her business in Hessel,” he says. It’s a grocery with a deli. “I cooked for a year, and the last two summers I’ve ran the kitchen for her, so that hasn’t been too bad.” After about 18 months of working, he had saved enough for his first year’s tuition at the boat school.

I ask him what he likes about the school, and he says, “You definitely get $10,000 worth of knowledge here. I can guarantee I’ve learned more here than I would’ve if I’d went back to college for another semester. That’s probably about what it woulda cost me—about ten grand—as far as an engineering degree goes, so … I didn’t know too much about boats when I got in here. I knew they floated, and that was about it.”

He plans on sticking around to do an internship this summer, after he graduates in June, “to be an extra set of hands, help out, give tours, keep the place clean.” I get the impression he’s trying to find a way to stay for a third year.

It’s clear that Collins is bonkers about the area. I ask him what’s so great about it, and he says, “There’s not much goin’ on around here. That’s one of the reasons I think I decided to stay.” As I leave the school around what would be rush hour in many places, a full moon is rising over Cedarville Bay, the hammers and saws have ceased for the day, and a hush has settled over the landscape. Bud and Mark are right—there’s not much going on around here, and it’s pretty nice.

But in contrast, these days there is a palpable buzz about the school in a broader sense. Enrollment is up three-fold from this time last year, the summer workshops—short stints open to the public—are filling up fast, and the new capital campaign is bringing in much-needed funds. Bud is coming up with all kinds of great outreach ideas. They are reaching out to every relevant person and organization they can think of—the high school shop teachers’ association of Michigan, the Navy’s educational service officers, the Coast Guard, the Michigan Maritime Museum, boatbuilding shops all around the Great Lakes. They’re advertising more. They’re going to more boat shows. They’re working to finalize plans to build two boats next year for maritime history groups. The folks who have come to love this place, paid and unpaid alike, are working around the clock to make it thrive. 

Build Your Own Boat

Great Lakes Boat Building School offers short summer workshops, from a few days to a week for assembling high-quality pre-cut kits. Boat profiles, schedule, fees at greatlakesboatbuilding.org

The Michigan School of Boat Building and Marine Technology, Petoskey A career-oriented school that teaches a broad range of boat building skills to high schoolers and older. themichiganschool.org

Inland Seas Education Association, Suttons Bay The general public can sign up for summer classes to build various craft, though spots are limited. Call to discuss your interests. inlandseaseducation.org

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski