Lake Michigan Shoreline
Straits of Mackinac to Frankfort
by Cyndi Perkins

The magnificent sand dunes, artsy towns and accommodating ports on the Michigan side of Lake Michigan are truly a boater’s delight, with a safe harbor every 15-20 miles (for the most part) and a multitude of launch facilities suitable for weekend sailors, day trippers or seasonal cruisers. The state routinely tops the nation in the number of boats registered and has responded with an admirable system of municipal marinas and designated harbors of refuge.

The “Mighty Mac” Bridge provides an awesome backdrop as Chip Ahoy heads through the straits to adventure on Lake Michigan.

Needless to say, we support Michigan’s efforts to create and maintain safe harbors all along its shorelines. We’re not called the Great Lakes State for nothing, as Superior, Huron, Erie and Michigan all grace our borders, along with an unbelievable array of superb inland lakes, rivers and streams. There are many excellent private marinas along the Lake Michigan route and Michigan yacht clubs are generally friendly about offering reciprocal privileges. We chose to stay at municipal marinas and were not disappointed.
Wending our way from Lake Superior to the rivers of America’s heartland, our journey included overnight stops at the excellent Detour Marina on the eastern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and another night at the St. Ignace Marina on the south side of the U.P., just past Mackinac Island.

At 7:15 a.m. Friday, Sept. 5, a crystal clear morning with light winds and little wave action, our 32-foot sailing vessel Chip Ahoy passed out of Lake Huron and into the Straits of Mackinac, which divide the Lower and Upper Peninsulas of the state. With many photo ops, we clicked our way under the “Mighty Mac” an hour later, our only company a little gray “Homeland Security” patrol boat at the base of the bridge and the rumble of traffic above. All we could see were the underbodies of the cars, RVs and semis about 200 feet overhead - a different perspective, to say the least. The bridge is much more intimidating when you are driving over it. Winds whipping through the straits can be a daunting for high-profile vehicles. There is even an escort service available for folks who are too nervous to drive over the bridge themselves. Speaking of wind, we furled the headsail, but it wasn’t happy in light on-the-nose breezes so the engine stayed on.

Feeling rested and replenished after a couple of days in marinas, we bypassed a highly recommended stop at Beaver Island at the head of Lake Michigan and headed straight for Charlevoix (pronounced Shar-leh-voy), roughly 60 miles from St. Ignace. Most legs of our journey down this shore would average 25-40 miles per day. We marveled at the abundance of good anchorages and marinas.

Charlevoix proved to be an excellent first taste of what the shoreline has to offer. The municipal marina, accessible via a channel and timed bridge leading into Round Lake, offers a rate break after Labor Day. Considering the extremely reasonable $20 per night fee we felt obligated to stay an extra day to fully enjoy some of the priciest waterfront property in the state of Michigan. The Charlevoix marina, and others along this shoreline, often have waiting lists and fill up quickly during peak summer season - another advantage to cruising in early fall.

Anchoring is permitted on Round Lake and many boats do. One sailboat drifted so close to the slips on Sunday morning that the harbormaster yelled over to them, “Five more feet and I’m gonna have to charge you for dockage.”

Boating is an integral part of Charlevoix’s frou-frou chi-chi atmosphere, and we were delighted with the vessel parade through the harbor in deep, tiny Round Lake. The lake is encircled with “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” condos complete with super-sized boathouses. We made acquaintance with a fat snow goose we nicknamed “Whitey,” who honks obnoxiously and liked to hang out on the ladder at the end of our dock. He took a shine to Captain Scott, as all birds do, but hissed at me.

There was a beautiful Cal 40 tucked in the front of our shared slip. The nice couple aboard a gorgeous Cabo Rico 38, Minniehaha, in the adjacent slip, helped us snug in behind. Our bowsprit came ominously close to the Cal’s stern and I only half-jokingly yelled “Prepare to fend off!” The couple on the Cal joked back that the actual command is “Prepare to ram!”

Long-time Lower Michigan friends Jamie and Ron Bignall came over to spend a day with us. Jamie and I have been buddies since high school days at Columbia Central in Brooklyn, Michigan. Both Jamie and Ron have that delightful quality that always makes it feel as if we just saw each other yesterday even when it’s been a couple of years since we last got together when they sailed up to Superior. We were in their territory, and they gave us the grand tour, including a swim in Lake Michigan and a Jeep tour of the Earl Young homes that are chief among Charlevoix’s charms. Earl Young,
(1889-1975) turned his idea of “organic architecture” loose on these houses. The stone cottages feature undulating shingle roofs, no right angles anywhere and curves, turrets and stone detail work galore, enhanced by delightful gardens. One expects Snow White’s dwarves to pop out the front doors at any moment! Ron calls them “Hobbit Houses.”

It was also quite entertaining to browse through the many downtown art galleries and shops. Though we found most amenities overpriced we did discover a good $5.99 soup, salad bar and pizza lunch buffet at the Village Inn. While Ron traveled with us over to the fuel dock and pumpout with us, Jamie (a consummate swimming instructor) dove in Round Lake to salvage a hefty dock cleat she spotted on the bottom that could be put to good reuse.

On Sunday, Sept. 7, we caught the 10:30 a.m. drawbridge after waiting for the morning fog to lift. We are both so excited to finally be cruising that we seldom sleep after 6 a.m. - every day is a new adventure. The bridge operator abruptly instructed us to “hurry up and give ’er some gas” as we passed through. Apparently not all bridge operators are as friendly and easygoing as our Portage Lake Lift Bridge operators up North. The Charlevoix Bridge is opened on the hour and half-hour from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. The rest of the time it’s on demand or at the whim of the operator. Ron told us that if we can’t raise a bridge operator on this shoreline, we should tie up on a sidewall and go knock on his office door because he might be watching TV or talking on the phone. Luckily we never had to go to those lengths.
The 36-mile jaunt to Leland, on the Leelanau Peninsula, featured favorable north winds but not enough power to turn off the engine and proceed under sail power. Breathtaking sugar sand dunes dominate this sector of the lake and watching the shoreline is pure joy, although some mariners of yore met a less pleasant fate negotiating the peninsula’s Manitou passage. A state underwater preserve encompasses several shipwreck sites, the majority dating back to the 1800s.

Captain Scott, left, and Ron and Jamie Bignall enjoy beach time in Charlevoix.

We tied up at Leland Township docks without incident, though low water levels were scarily apparent on the breakwalls and on the docks themselves, which have been retrofitted with ladders to assist in climbing up - way up - from your vessel’s deck. Scott carefully guided Chip Ahoy around a tight, shoaled corner into our assigned slip while I bravely ignored our sounder “Liar,” my nickname for the depth finder. I just kept telling myself it was probably reading weeds, not the actual bottom. Harbor visitors in 2005 will find at least six inches more of water than we did. All Great Lakes levels are reportedly up this year.

Leland has an Internet café, many interesting restaurants and rushing waterfalls at the center of town where the river is dammed. The river runs through “Fish Town,” a restored fishing village next to the marina. We had a good time checking out the gourmet and gift shops. Since we were in Michigan wine country we picked up a bottle of red local vintage to sample later and also bought some dynamite blue-cheese stuffed giant olives to try immediately. Scott concocted an excellent dinner aboard featuring chicken breasts sautéed in garlic and rice with mushrooms.

The marina has a card-key bathroom system with $20 cash deposit required, so we had to wait until the office opened at 8 a.m. to retrieve our deposit and leave this Lake Michigan wayside.

Aiming for Arcadia, we reveled in a Dune-O-Mite cruise with Sand-tastic views! Sorry to be so cheesy, but the spectacular shoreline calls for new superlatives and I am sure everyone who cruises here will be equally taken with the loveliness of the landscape. The Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes are a living sculpture that graces the horizon for miles. Winds were light on the nose so we motored with the autopilot on, basking in Indian summer temperatures.

I was reading and semi-dozing in the cockpit and Scott was “downstairs” working on a computer program when a flash of orange alerted me to a Coast Guard patrol boat pulling alongside. Chief Boarding Officer Derek Spivey and crew were very courteous and professional as Captain Scott produced all we needed for inspection and more: life jackets, flares, horn, bell, fire extinguishers (you must have two, we have six), and USCG documentation as well as our state boat registration. They also asked for Scott’s driver’s license, which I found amusing. As first mate my role was to sit still and zip my lip, which I performed admirably. Chief Spivey gave us our gold certificate for passing all requirements and congratulated us on being well prepared for our voyage.

Even though the experience was positive, almost pleasant, the 15-minute boarding was nerve-wracking as it was Chip Ahoy’s first boarding. Cruising is all about relaxation broken with adrenaline rushes. We decided we’d had our adrenaline quota for the day and diverted from the Arcadia anchorage plan, taking the channel from the lake into a closer port in Frankfort. Frankfort, by the way, is named after an original settler who built fences and piled brush and logs around his property to fend off drifting snow, creating what the locals called “Frank’s Fort.” Get it?

There were plenty of weeds at the city docks but ample depth and sturdy pelican poles. The swans I was anticipating in Charlevoix were gliding on Betsie Lake harbor. Our slip in front of the public library provided easy access for checking e-mail and updating our website.

We departed at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 9, after hot showers and a walk uptown to the beach park, including a stop at the bakery for a warm loaf of whole wheat. As we left the channel entry the Coast Guard trailed us for a few minutes before realizing we had already been inspected. We absorbed more dune-ariffic views of the sandy Lower Michigan coastline - one never tires of it, but we are beginning to feel antsy for the next phase of our cruise south.

The next Cruiser’s Notebook will be covering the central to southern Lake Michigan shoreline from Manistee to New Buffalo, Michigan. Cyndi Perkins is a freelance writer and full-time cruiser traveling with husband Scott aboard their 32-foot DownEast sailboat Chip Ahoy. The couple completed America’s Great Circle Loop - a nine-month, 6,000-mile journey - on June 4, 2004. Since returning to their Lake Superior homeport they have been visiting favorite destinations while preparing for another extended cruise south. Cyndi will be sharing top northern and Midwest boating destinations with readers in her regular “Cruiser’s Notebook” feature.