Boating On Lake Michigan

By Kevin Walters

They had a dream: to take the kids on a big boating adventure that would push them, connect them, and open them up to the world around them.

Photo of the Island BountyIsland Bound, at anchor in Baie Fine.

During the summer of 2010, my wife Erin and I decided to leave our Lake Michigan homeport and take our two young daughters — Isabel, 5, and Hannah, 8 — out to explore the Great Lakes. I longed to live the cruising lifestyle for a summer, and expose the kids to an experience that I hoped would shape their dreams. Erin and I, a schoolteacher and a biologist, wanted to turn Lake Michigan into a giant open-air classroom.

Photo of the author's wife and baby daughterErin and our newest daughter Soleil (5 months) enjoy the peace at anchor.

We sailed our 28-foot Irwin Mark IV, Island Bound, more than 1,000 nautical miles during our three-month journey, and made it as far as Killarney, Ontario, in Lake Huron. We spent our days sailing, swimming, hiking, playing games, and singing, until buzzard-sized mosquitoes drove us down into the cabin for the evening. Most nights, we anchored alone in peaceful, natural harbors. There were rare moments when each one of us felt scared or bored, but they were far outweighed by the countless times we laughed, loved, and learned. There are enough islands to visit, sand dunes to climb, gunkholes to explore, and enough ports-of-call to keep even the most landlubberly crewmember happy. Here are some of our favorite spots, from our cruising adventure, and from our weekend explorations.

For a lesson in social history, we visited Beaver Island, population 650, and 32 miles offshore from Charlevoix, Michigan. The passage makes for a nice day of sailing in the right conditions. Being the most remote inhabited island on all the Great Lakes almost guarantees an interesting past, and Beaver Island didn't disappoint. The locals told us of James Strang, leader of a Mormon sect in the mid-1800s, who moved to the island with his followers and declared himself polygamist king in an elaborate ceremony. He was eventually murdered by disgruntled disciples, and the rest of his followers were run off Beaver. Strang left a colorful trail of history still fascinating people on the island today.

Time For Science

Photo of the author Kevin Walters and his daughter skipping stones into Lake MichiganAuthor Kevin Walters and Isabel skip stones into Lake Michigan from S. Manitou Island while gazing back at their anchored sailboat.

A sail out to South Manitou revealed amazing rock-collecting opportunities on the low-lying eastern shore. The surf has pounded this shore for hundreds of years, leaving enough flat, smooth granite stones for a stone-skipping contest that could last until the next ice age. We spent a few wonderful days exploring the other natural wonders, such as the boisterous gull rookery, and the beautiful camouflage of a yellow sac spider preying on a butterfly among the shoreline flowers. Venturing deep into the interior of South Manitou, we discovered an abandoned one-room schoolhouse. The girls peered through the dirty windows, imagining sitting in the old wooden desks when school was in session in the 19th century. The large crescent-shaped harbor on the Eastern Shore was the only suitable anchorage, though it only offered Island Bound protection from north-northwest winds.

Photo of author's daughter swing high over a duneHannah flies high above the dunes.

Geology lessons abound in the Great Lakes. We've often anchored off Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and gone ashore to experience the sand between our toes. These aren't just any dunes, however. Some rise 450 feet above the lake. As waves cut away the bases of glacial moraine bluffs, an endless supply of sand was given to the wind to continually deposit on top. The view, looking down at our anchored sloop, was impressive. But the real reward for a difficult climb is the run and tumble back down, and the thrilled screams of my girls as they raced for cooling water below.

A well-rounded education includes culinary school, and so, this past summer, we sailed Island Bound to Wisconsin's Door County peninsula to take in a traditional fish boil. Anchored at Fish Creek, we went ashore early enough to watch the cooking process and hear a bit about the history. Centuries ago, Scandinavian settlers came to harvest timber and other natural resources, and gathered for communal fish boils.

A Little Math

I'd be shorting my kids if I didn't provide them with some practical examples of the mathematical equations and physics lessons they're taught in their normal school, so we sailed under the mighty Mackinac Bridge where these lessons were all around us. They don't even need to know that this is currently the third longest (5-mile-long) suspension bridge in the world, or that the towers reach 552 feet into the sky, to understand what an amazing application of numeric magic they're witnessing.

Connecting Michigan's Lower and Upper Peninsulas with a structure that has had more than 100 million crossings in its lifetime, and has withstood countless numbers of vicious winter storms, is impressive regardless of facts and figures. Whenever Island Bound's mast slips beneath those rushing cars, I always look up in awe, smiling as I hear the girls gasp at the optical illusion of our mast hitting the bridge.

The Humanities

When it's time for a little arts and literature, we point the bow toward Little Traverse Bay and the ports within. The north shore hides the protected port of Harbor Springs where we meander past the art galleries and trinket shops. Almost directly across the bay is the small city of Petoskey, the setting of several Nick Adams stories by Ernest Hemingway, who spent childhood summers here. Like Hemingway and his characters, we walk Petoskey streets, enjoying the "up North" air. If we're lucky, we find some fossilized coral, or Petoskey stones, reminding us that this region wasn't always just an inland sea of fresh water. A short distance down the coast is the affluent resort community of Bay Harbor, the state's largest collection of glittering megayachts. "How cool is that?" I tell my girls that we enjoy the same harbors and spectacular views from our humble Island Bound as they do from theirs.

Photo of the Island Bounty with a rainbow in the sky

As moved as I am by the unique geology and history of the ports and islands in northern Lake Michigan, our most transcendent moments occurred during our first openwater crossing, a 72-nautical-mile, 14-hour overnight passage from Pentwater, Michigan, to Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Being on a small boat in the darkness of night, out of sight of shore, put cruising into perspective. We felt small with the night sky above us, and miles between our bow and landfall. Part of me was sad to see the Wisconsin shoreline rise on the horizon and know that feelings of being the only boat on the planet were coming to an end. This was one school from which I wasn't ready to graduate. 

Kevin Walters is a writer and biologist who continues to sail out of Muskegon, Michigan, with his family. He writes about his adventures at

— Published: April/May 2013

Mackinac Island Is A Step Back In Time

Mackinac Island, just a few miles offshore in the Straits of Mackinac, is easily accessible to boaters from ports on both Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, but when you arrive it feels as if you've traveled back a century to reach it. There are no cars clogging the streets or polluting the air, only horses, carriages, and bicycles. Much of the island's architecture is reminiscent of the Victorian era, but there are older influences as well, from Native American tribes and a late 18th century French settlement.

Photo of colorful sialboats in Lake MichiganPhoto: Michigan Travel Bureau

Boaters coming for a visit should plan ahead as there's only one harbor and public marina on the island. The marina is owned and operated by the state of Michigan and was updated in 2008 with new docks and facilities. The harbor itself is essentially a deep bay on the south side of the island with additional protection from the weather in the Straits of Mackinac provided by two man-made breakwaters extending out from the island. While anchoring in the harbor is possible, overnight stays on the hook should be carefully considered because of deep water and questionable holding. Swells produced from ferry wakes also roll through the harbor and marina multiple times per hour during all daylight hours. Reservations for slips should be secured months in advance because the marina is full almost all summer long.

Whether you're day tripping or staying longer, there are plenty of places to explore by foot, horse-drawn carriage, or bicycle. While Main Street, with its historic buildings, can be crowded, a stroll through town is a fun workout for the senses. Smells of fresh fudge and yesterday's horse food fill the air. People-watching is superb. A climb up the steep trail to Fort Mackinac will awaken the legs. The 232-year old British-built fort remains as a rare survivor of the American Revolutionary War and dominates the landscape from the southern view of the island. Seeing the picketed barrier fences and stone walls, hearing the old cannons thunder, and interacting with costumed soldiers resurrects early 19th century history.

Photo Taking in the view through Arch Rock on Mackinac IslandTaking in the view through Arch Rock on Mackinac Island.

Touring the flat 8-mile road that circumnavigates the island's perimeter is another worthy way to take in the sights, though this time they mostly include natural features like Arch Rock, The Tower, and Devil's Kitchen. Opportunities to venture into the island's quiet and hilly interior are plenty with small roads, paths, and trails splitting off from the perimeter route around nearly every bend. The governor's residence and the five-star Grand Hotel make for interesting stops once the road rounds back to the "front" of the island. The latter features exclusive dining and the world's longest front porch, but be sure you're wearing proper attire if you set foot on hotel property after 6 p.m. because flip flops and T-shirts aren't allowed.

While Mackinac Island is easily accessible by passenger ferry or airplane, traveling to an island on your own personal boat is a unique and rewarding experience. This island's proximity to mainland ports, its unique history, and wide array of activities available once ashore, ensure that boaters with varying skill levels and interests can all find something to make the trip over worthwhile.


Cruising the Great Lakes

To travel around each of the Great Lakes with experienced boaters, who will whet your appetite to explore some of the most spectacular cruising grounds in the world see these other stories:

Boating In The Thousand Islands
Boating On Lake Superior
Tips From The GLCC: Lake Superior
Tips From The GLCC: Port Huron
Boating On Lake Huron
Tips From The GLCC: The Detroit River To Saginaw Bay


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