In December 2018, young ski instructors Elliott Langton and Evan Blanc started scheming from the Nubs Nob green lift about their shared love of water. Wouldn’t it be great, they wondered, to create a way—a ferry maybe—to get around Little Traverse Bay in the same way vacationers did more than a century ago?
Elliott, now a University of Michigan sophomore, but then a Harbor Springs High School senior, pursued their dream. He looked up phone numbers and invited city council members to lunch, mentioning he was a high school student working on a project. He even spent hours putting together a puzzle with one Harbor Springs council member while extolling the benefits of the project.
After what Elliott thinks may be a record for the number of city council meetings held for a single issue, the entire council was eventually on board, and he and Evan enlisted other volunteers and continued to raise funds. They reached out to a local investment expert and brought him on the team. Evan became the group’s first executive director, and Elliott, a determined young entrepreneur whose father runs Harbor Spring’s nonprofit Lyric Theatre, focused on fundraising. More credibility came with the addition of board members, like now- president Chris Chamberlain, who brought practical knowledge as owner and captain of the Michigan Princess and Grand Princess riverboats, and business owner Ami Klykken, whose too-many-to-count volunteer hours earned her the honor of having the ferry named after her.
With the bravado of youth, they found a way around any door that closed.
“One time, there was a letter submitted that people on Harbor Bluff thought it would negatively affect their property values,” Elliott says. “I just went and got signatures from people on the bluff. They loved the idea. If we got a ‘no,’ we’d find another way to make it work.”
The group became a nonprofit, found a boat for sale that was being retired from use as a ferry on the East Coast, made the needed repairs and brought it back to Harbor Springs.
Now in its second full year and with 7,000 riders that first summer, they’ve revived a 140-year tradition, says Harbor Springs Area Historical Society Executive Director Kristyn Balog. The new ferry may not look exactly like the early ferries, nor are the guests wearing the Victorian garb showcased in the photos of old. But it’s rooted in the same purpose: getting people from one resort community to another, and out on the water.
The new ferry may not look exactly like the early ferries, nor are the guests wearing the Victorian garb showcased in the photos of old. But it’s rooted in the same purpose: getting people from one resort community to another, and out on the water.
The sky is that Northern Michigan mid-summer blue as guests board the ferry Ami Lynn in Bay Harbor.
The flags strung along the top of the 52-foot passenger ferry lend the air of a party, and so do Capt. Dave Crowley and the friendly first mate, both of whom greet passengers as they board. The blast of the boat horn makes an effective signal to potential riders that it’s time to finish up breakfast at The Original Pancake House, pick up cocktails to go at Mammoth Distillery and a picnic lunch from Salvatore’s Deli, or to finish up that boutique purchase at Tulips.
Shopping, sightseeing, town hopping and simply being on the water are the many reasons ferry-goers climb aboard. Some, like Valentina Anderson, use the ferry to cut a few miles off a trip on the Little Traverse Wheelway. Valentina brought her son, her brother and a cousin on board, along with their bikes.
Related Read: Spend a Day Biking the Little Traverse Wheelway.
She and her son love being outdoors, says Valentina, who owns a cottage on Torch Lake. “And this brings the fun of doing something new.”
There’s a 30-minute ride to the first stop, Petoskey, where Capt. Dave expertly docks alongside a city park that boasts garden circles of bright red flowers in bloom. Coincidentally on this day, another nod to history passes in the form of a local tribal member and crew paddling a traditional ex- tended canoe with a dragon painted on the side.
A few disembark and start their exploring with a buttery just-baked pretzel from Petoskey Pretzel Co., just a short walk up the hill. Other popular stops are The Back Lot food truck area for a microbrew, feasting on traditional fish and chips at The Reel Deal and browsing the indie bookstore classic McLean and Eakin.
Related Read: 3 Northern Michigan Food Trucks to Try This Summer.
Pretzel from Petoskey Pretzel Co.
Back on board, the Petoskey to Harbor Springs leg passes the shoreline of the historic Bay View community, once a popular ferry stop for those heading to its Chautauqua-style performances, many of which still take place throughout the summer. This leg also takes riders past the dunes and beaches of Petoskey State Park. Today, a sailing race is taking place on the bay sparkling with what the crew calls “diamonds.” “This is what most people take the trip for,” Capt. Dave says.
“A survey we did showed 80 percent of Emmet County residents have never been on the bay—they didn’t have a boat themselves or access to one,” Capt. Dave explains. “We wanted to make it possible for almost anybody to get on the water, and that’s what we found. One of my first passengers was an 80-year-old woman who had never been on the bay, and she’d lived here her whole life. She was so tickled, and I just love that so much.”
As the ferry nears Harbor Springs, the crew intentionally avoids a who’s-who narration of the people behind the turreted cottage mansions on Harbor Point, a private community where generations of wealthy families have summered. However, they just may share some insider tidbits about the cottagers’ boats. One, Capt. Dave tells the group, is worth $3 million. But two women who boarded in Petoskey say their wish list might instead include a sleek black beauty they dubbed the “James Bond getaway boat.”
When the ferry pulls into the deep harbor of Harbor Springs, some stay back to photograph the particularly striking shade of blue. Those who disembark are well-positioned for a day of food, fun, shopping, a history walk or all of the above. Head up a block from the marina, and you pass the Historical Society’s museum. There, you can see an exhibit that showcases photos, memorabilia and commissioned paintings of the bay’s ferries of the late 1800s and early 1900s, perhaps even more interesting after a day spent at the identical port towns. Many continue on for a quick ice cream cone at Yummies of Harbor Springs, an “egg roll flight” at The Paper Station Bistro or a happy hour visit to Pierson’s ($5 margaritas make total sense with a tempura sushi roll and some pinball playing).
The egg roll flight from The Paper Station Bistro.
Back on board for the return trip to Bay Harbor, conversation turns to the 2021 sailing year. There are long-term plans for a floating classroom and expansion to other ports. For now, look for new sunset cruises, more efforts to promote dining and shop hopping between ports and a bit more fundraising—needed until the ferry can eventually be self-sustaining. Mostly, the board and crew encourage people to buy a ticket for even just one trip leg, and to donate to the cause, if they feel moved to.
“Our mission,” Ami says, “is to get as many people onto the water as possible. It’s a feeling like no other.”
Kim Schneider is a long-time travel writer specializing in Michigan adventures, food and wine. The Midwest Travel Journalist Association has named her Mark Twain Travel Writer of the Year, and she’s the author of “100 Things to Do in Traverse City Before You Die.” Andy Wakeman is a Northern Michigan-based photographer inspired by the characters and scenic views of his hometown.
How to Catch The Ferry
The company offers one-way and specially priced round-trip tickets between Bay Harbor, Petoskey and Harbor Springs starting at $10 per leg. Bikes ($3) and dogs (no extra charge) are allowed. Find the schedule and purchase tickets for trips and new sunset sails at the Little Traverse Bay Ferry website.
Boat to Dinner (and more)
You can make the Ami Lynn your ride to some of the north’s most popular resort dining and shopping towns. Diane Dakins of the Petoskey Area Visitors Bureau shares recommendations for trip stops or themes:
- Bay Harbor is great for relaxing. Take time to pamper yourself with a spa service at the luxurious inn at bay harbor or linger over a drink lakeside (with fish tacos and carrot cake) at Knot Just a Bar, just down from the ferry dock.
- In Petoskey, you’ll want to shop and sip. Head to Grandpa Shorter’s and NorthGoods for souvenirs, like the area’s signature Petoskey stones, and Ward & Eis and Crooked Tree Arts Center for Gallery Art. Sip the wunderbrau at Beard’s Brewery or a beverage of choice at a sunset stop favorite, the Rose Garden Veranda at Stafford’s Perry Hotel. Add a hidden gem to your agenda— the labyrinth behind the Petoskey Public Library.
- In Harbor Springs, make your theme a sampling of it all. Get a famed Tom’s Mom’s cookie fresh from the oven, walk the actual pier, before or after lunch or dinner at Stafford’s Pier, and feel the breeze that’s been attracting sailors for more than a century. Shop for women’s clothing favorites at Ivy’s Boutique and Hanni’s, and if you want more time on the water, head to the outfitter for a kayak or paddleboard rental. The Lyric Theatre can make a great final stop; the nonprofit plays first-run films on three screens and uses real butter on the popcorn. Visit the Petoskey Area website for more details and additional ideas.
Don’t Miss the Boat!
The Harbor Springs Area Historical Society has picked an aptly catchy name for this year’s special exhibit—free or by donation—on the historic ferry boats of Little Traverse Bay that ran from 1875 to about 1930. Check out the early ticket stubs and schedules for ferries like the Adrienne and Silver Spray that would make stops at docks of resort communities like Harbor Point and Wequetonsing, Roaring Brook and Bay View.
The museum commissioned artist William Talmadge Hall to create original watercolors (on display and for sale) of early portraits of ferries as riders would have experienced them—in some cases being greeted by young lads selling newspapers, or the ferries sharing the bay with large steamships like the Manitou, coal ships and ladies paddling canoes in Victorian finery. Look for the advertisement for the ferry ride paired with rollerskating; it offered excursions as well as a skating rink jutting over the bay. And linger in the exhibit room that explores life in the region during that era. Staff created a YouTube project around the guest register of the Harbor Point Hotel, complete with cartoon doodles by the desk staff and signatures showcasing the way people brought household staff along for what would be an entire summer’s getaway. It was a bustling time, notes exhibit curator Beth Wemigwase, far busier than even the height of summer today. The Chrysler Company, the first to offer ferries, was carrying 5,000 passengers a day at one point. “There was a perfect storm,” Beth says, “with this influx of resorters fueling the need to get around the bay more efficiently.”
Find this article and more in the July 2021 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine; or subscribe and get Traverse delivered to your door each month.