Where in the World is Onekama?
Sailing Northwest Michigan

by Anne & Dick Brandt

MIshore.JPG (37291 bytes)As usual we had a plan. Even after nine seasons of making and breaking plans with our Precision 21, LEVEL III, we still make them. It must be in the genes.

The plan was to trailer our boat to Frankfort, launch and stay there for a couple of days, tour Leland to the north, then each day sail south and stay overnight at Arcadia, Onekama (Portage Lake), Manistee, Ludington and finally Pentwater, where we would retrieve and drive home. A full week for sure! But after the first day we gradually went from Plan A to B to C and I’m not sure where we ended up; mostly due to wind and weather.

Frankfort, pop. 1600 -

They have good (not great) municipal launch ramps; $4.00 on the honor system. You slide the money into a `mail’ slot which dumps it into a shallow box on the other side of the Harbormaster’s shanty wall but, after enough money piles up, anyone with a skinny arm could reach into the slot and pull out not only their money but a fair amount of somebody else’s also. However, my arm wasn’t skinny enough!

The ramps are steep, which is good, but the piers are too short, which is bad because the boat comes off the trailer past the end of the pier. However since we always launch and retrieve on the downwind side of the pier Anne was able to swing the boat around using dock lines and get it back against the pier once Dick had pulled the trailer out of the way. We parked the car and trailer overnight in the lot for $1.00.

We had already gotten our slip assignment from the Jacobson Marina Harbormaster so it was just a matter of motoring over to it from the launch area (approx. 1/2 mile) and pulling into the slip where the two blonde and bronzed employees were waiting to assist us. Cost: $42.00 for two nights. The piers are new and solid, as opposed to floating, and the washroom facilities are outstanding. They have done a nice job of landscaping with real grass and flowers. It is a very nice marina in which to spend a day or two.

Since it had taken us seven hours to get to Frankfort, at 57 mph and several stops along the way, about all we had time for was to get out our foldup bikes and quickly tour the town which consists of one main street with some very nice well kept up houses on the back streets. Although only one street wide, the business district seems to have about every kind of store you would want except for the fancy ones as can be found in the `big’ city. But when you’re on vacation in a small boat who needs fancy? Total distance covered by bike - approx. 4 miles.

Our evening ritual consists of putting up the rain cover and plugging into the electric service. Skipper uses a yellow 30 amp converter to a standard extension cord which has a 15 amp fuse in the plug. However, since we were sharing a 60 ft. slip with another boat, we had to use two extension cords in order to reach. I made a note to get a longer cord for next season.

We plugged in the Battery Pal, which tops off the battery overnight, and the CD player, using a 3-way connector. Later we unplugged the CD player and plugged in the heater which, it turned out, we did not need that night.

Later in the week we would `hit the shops’ with determination, but not this day.

Leland, pop. 400 -

leland.JPG (21029 bytes)There is a morning routine on our boat that doesn’t vary much no matter where we are. The highlight is that first cup of coffee. But to get there is somewhat of a laborious trip. An important part of the preparation is the Origo alcohol stove which, as you might imagine, must be filled with alcohol periodically. Somehow Skipper must have forgotten since, although it lit with no problem, the flame was a shadow of its former self. So, this morning, heating the coffee water took about 15 minutes instead of the five it normally takes. It always seems longer when your body is calling out for caffeine! But it eventually happened and we made it through the rest of the morning routine with no further delays. After the stove cooled, Skipper refilled the stove with a spare alcohol supply we always keep on board.

Since Leland is approximately 40 miles from Frankfort, a long days sail up and another one back, we planned to drive it. The road is picturesque, wooded, single lane, hilly, and winding; so much so that the mileage was actually 48, and it took about an hour. Depending on where you live, and where you vacation, if you are from the `big’ city, Leland seems like one of those towns that you’re not sure you are there when you get there! For Door County fans, it is bigger than Ellison Bay but not as big as Egg Harbor. Unlike some towns, not all of the action is on the main street so it is has more to offer than is first indicated. Despite its small size, like any town that caters to tourists, it has published a Visitors Guide with help from the Leelanau Peninsula Chamber of Commerce.

We found that each of the towns in this area has its own personality. Leland is still a commercial fishing village in conjunction with a successful tourist business. Its viability is enhanced by a strategic location as the only port in the 60 mile stretch between Frankfort, to the south, and Northport, around the Michigan peninsula to the east. The marina has only 50 slips but has a reputation for not turning anyone away. During the height of the boating season rafting is common; albeit a necessity.

It’s an unusual sight to have the fishing boats pull in and unload their large coolers filled with fish, packed in ice, directly through the back door of the fish houses that sell the fish out the front door. It also has Fishtown; a `gathering of old fishing shanties, net sheds, and assorted buildings associated with the industry, which have been tastefully preserved for new functions such as gift shops, bakery, candy store, etc.’ . It also has the Cove Restaurant which overlooks the marina, Leland River Falls, and serves the best Fish chowder that we have ever had.

Since we really had nothing to shop for we occupied the better part of a couple of hours biking around the town and soaking up the ambiance, and the smells, of a real-life fishing village. Thus far the plan was working. But the weather was to dictate a change in our grand scheme.

We didn’t realize it until later that, on the way to Leland, we had passed by the world’s largest living sand dune, Sleeping Bear Dune, which is part of the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. The sleeping bear cubs, called North and South Manitou Islands lie approximately 7 miles offshore and can be reached by private boat or ferry from Leland. The Manitou islands are classified as a wilderness and facilities for day trippers are minimal. That means no fudge or souvenir shops! But we didn’t make it to the park on this trip.

Back in Frankfort we hitched up the trailer from the launch ramp parking lot and drove to Arcadia, which is like Ellison Bay in its scope. We found the marina and explained our plan to the Harbormaster who thought we were nuts! Despite that opinion we asked him where we could park the car and trailer overnight. He said, `Just put it on the side of the road, on that guy’s lawn, no one will bother it and he doesn’t mind.’ Later we discovered that boaters do this every day. I don’t know when the property owner cuts his grass! We got out our bikes, put on our gear (gloves and helmets) and took off for Frankfort to get back to our boat. Are you keeping up with this?

When I mentioned that the road from Frankfort to Leland was hilly I meant when one is in a high powered vehicle, namely our Suburban. When you are on two fold-up bikes we’re talking about the ROCKIES!. It was only 12 miles, which is normally within our capacity, but when you have to walk up three hills, each at least 1/2 mile long, plus struggle up many others, the 12 seems like 40! But that was all part of the plan. (At the top of one hill a sign said 1500 ft. elevation! So that was the reason we were yawning and more tired in the afternoons? Compare that with Chicago’s 600 ft. elevation.)

Once back in Frankfort, however, we still had enough energy for Anne to buy some fudge and Dick to take some slide photos in preparation for a presentation at the next Strictly Sail show. It was quite a day so it was early to bed with no trouble falling asleep.

Arcadia, pop. small -

The next morning the forecast was for cloudy sky, East wind shifting to SE later in the afternoon, with rain. We looked forward to a 10 mile sail to the south with an east wind on the beam. Skipper remarked that it could be the best sailing we had had all summer. Not so! By the time we had finished with all of the usual morning chores it was 9 am. We motored out of the channel to the `big lake’ to discover that the east wind had already veered to the southeast but we thought we could sail on a close reach anyway so up went the main. But the SE wind turned out to more southerly, i.e. mostly on our nose. Anyone for motor sailing?

Also, the wind must have veered earlier in the morning since it was kicking up 1 - 2 foot waves which we had to motor through and over, mostly over. So no big deal; we’d motorsailed many other times in our nine years of cruising. Then it started to rain. Lightly at first but then harder and harder. We got out our foulies, tops and bottoms, except for Skipper who insists on sailing in shorts, and found out how water repellent our foulies really were. Let’s just say they kept off most of the water! The rest of it was soaked up by whatever we happened to have on underneath. We made a mental note to look into replacing them with Gore-Tex during the off season. The temperature was about 60, with rain and the wind in our faces; Skipper has never been so cold.

Now we appreciate a little better why Joshua Slocum felt so relieved he actually cried when, after several weeks at sea, he saw the island he was looking for in the midst of the vast ocean. Skipper didn’t cry when the harbor entrance piers came into view but it was a relief to know that the miserable conditions had an end; albeit 30 minutes later. We turned into the channel and took down the main. It was still raining so hard that there was some concern that we couldn’t see our way into the strange port. However, we had studied the chart of the area and trusted our memory.

At the end of the channel is Arcadia Lake. A left turn into a long narrow bay which opens to where is located the State marina. It has to be one of the most protected marinas on the big Lake. It was just what we were looking for.

We must have looked like drowned rats as we pulled up to the gas dock on which was located the Harbormaster’s office. Fortunately he was there, even though this was Tuesday morning, and he had his gas stove cranked up! Skipper didn’t want to leave his warm office. He told us which slip to pull into and even put on a poncho and helped us tie up. By that time it had almost stopped raining so there was hope that the rest of the day would be nice. The marina isn’t very big but it is big enough. They used to have just 12 slips until a major expansion doubled that number and they built a nice bath house besides.

After hot showers, which were located just a few steps from our slip, it was back to Plan C. Anne took the car (remember we had dropped it off the day before) and drove the 12 miles back to Frankfort and `did the shops’ which we had not had time to do previously. Meanwhile, Skipper puttered around the boat as only skippers can. After a couple of hours Anne returned to the boat with only small packages; always a good sign to Skipper! We gathered up all of the wet stuff and drove the 8 miles to Onekama (Portage Lake) which was where we had planned to spend the night in Plan B. We dumped our wet clothes into the Laundromat dryer and 15 minutes, or $.50 later, they were dry and we were much warmer.

It is possible to anchor in either the main part of Arcadia Lake or the northern bay. Since this town, like most of the towns in this area, was originally a thriving lumber and mill town, there remain submerged pilings along the eastern shore, south of the marina, which should be avoided.

Although small, for the cruiser Arcadia has the basics; ice at the Harbormaster’s office, and groceries in town within walking distance. It is probably the most peaceful marina we have been in since Hessel, northeast of Mackinac Island; and very dark; perfect for sky gazing. The boat didn’t rock from commercial boats, ferries, or big power boats. If you are looking for quiet, this is the place.

Onekama, pop. 600 -

The adjacent Portage Lake is bigger than Arcadia Lake, and deeper. It is over 3 miles long and its width varies from 1/2 to 1 1/2 miles. The town is at the east end of the lake. The only recommended marina is Onekama Marina, Yard #2, which is located on the south side of the lake opposite the town. This makes it a good mile from the Marina for any action in town; like going to the IGA or the Laundromat. The lake is fairly well protected except for west winds that will roll the waves from the big lake right across the water to the marina which is, however, additionally protected with a breakwater. By the time we got out of the Laundromat, it was 4:30 p.m. and the sidewalks were being rolled up. So we drove back to our boat and it was there that we noticed that the new bath house also had two washers and dryers! But, no matter, we had wanted to check out Portage Lake anyway. We drove back to the boat in Arcadia and reviewed our evening plans.

Such plans are limited in a town, where there can’t be more than 100 people, so we decided to test their only restaurant, `The Big Apple’ is conveniently located right on the highway but about 1/2 mile from the Marina so we drove. It was a simple place with a bar, of course, and an adjacent room with tables. When asked, the waitress said the tables were all smoking so we found one out of the way and checked out the menu which had a surprising variety of entrees. Skipper picked out the Scrod and Anne the Sizzler Steak. Both were good, especially when washed down with Leinie Red (that’s Leinenkugel Red if you are not from Wisconsin).

Ludington, pop. 8500 -

ludingtn.JPG (24096 bytes)For reasons since forgotten we decided to retrieve the boat using the one lane launch ramp and haul it to Ludington. Maybe we still had bad memories from the drenching we got the day before. So we retrieved the boat and had to take an immediate right to the marina parking lot, of approximately 20 spaces, to avoid overhead wires. For good reason not many sailboats launch here. We got the boat ready for traveling and took off down Route 22 for Ludington.

What a surprise we had when entering the Ludington city limits since it is the biggest town in the area! To enhance the beauty of the area everyone seems to grow flowers especially along the main street in a strip about 18 inches extending back from the curb. Petunias seem to be the flower of choice and they are very well kept up. People can be seen on their hands and knees weeding and picking off the blooms that are past their prime. What color they add to the sameness of asphalt streets and concrete curbs. They even have flower festivals in the area like Holland has Tulip time!

The municipal launch ramp had eight lanes and lots of fishermen. We’re always a little concerned around fishermen launching their boats because they seem to have very little patience; their boats are readied for launching in minutes instead of the solid hour we take. But fortunately they like to use the upwind side of the launch piers since they frequently launch by themselves and let the boat bang against the pier, whereas we like to use the leeward side where we can control the boat with dock lines to keep it off the pier. The ramps would be exposed to the west except for another breakwater that protects them from the west winds and waves. We were able to launch without interference from the fishermen for a cost of $5.00.

To get from the ramps to the channel, which leads to the Pere Marquette Lake, one has to go around the lake end of the channel piers. With strong west winds that would be an interesting trip but this day it was no problem. A few days later we would find how different it is with a strong southwest wind.

The relatively new (1981) 150 slip municipal marina is located on the north side of the channel just past the Coast Guard station. As you can tell by now this is a large marina compared with some others in this area. Like Mackinac Island, this very popular marina does not take reservations and you have to be within sight of the Harbormaster when you call them on Ch. 16 to be considered for a slip. We didn’t get there until about 11:00 am but still were able to get a slip for the next few nights at $16 per. One advantage of a 21 ft. boat is that it can fit into many places in a marina.

As usual, after tying up and hanging up our wet stuff that we didn’t put into the dryer the day before, we got out our bikes and headed for town. Virtually all of the stores are on the main street called Ludington Avenue which we eyeballed while riding east and watching out for auto traffic, pedestrians, pot holes, and car doors opening in our path. We also took in one of the non-commercial streets, occupied by modest but nicely kept homes, on our way back west again. We turned north at the west end of town and rode along the lake on Lake Shore Drive where were located the fancier homes. A couple of miles down the road is the Chuckwagon Restaurant which had the best pizza in town according to the Dock Hands in the Harbormaster’s office when we checked in. They were right. It was good!

We finished just in time to pedal over to where the ferry boat, Badger, comes in from its four hour trip from Manitowoc, WI. It’s quite impressive being over 600 ft. long and having to turn around within the Pere Marquette lake in order to dock stern-to. Due to a strong west wind they actually dropped anchor to help them control the boat and avoid being pushed into the dock by the wind. It’s a funny sight to see a forty foot boat, which we would normally think of as good size, dwarfed by the ferry. Needless to say, everyone gives the ferry the right of way, legal or not. Twice a day at 7:00 am and 6:00 PM all of the people along the shore of the lake sort of drop what they are doing to watch the ferry come in or go out. It reminds me of the arrival of the stage coach in the olden times or the Wells Fargo Wagon in the musical play `The Music Man’.

North of Ludington, along the lake shore, is the State Park where a $4.00 fee got us in for the day. Once again we got out our bikes and rode along the roads and paved hiking/biking path that, unfortunately, only was about 2 miles long. Seeking more of a challenge we turned off the path onto a sandy, gravelly mile long road that led to the Big Sable Lighthouse which is undergoing reconstruction with State and Grant money. It is located on Big Sable Point which is a bump on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan approximately halfway from Chicago to Mackinac Island. A mile may not seem like much when biking but there were places where the sand was so deep that we had to walk our bikes and felt chagrined when a 12 year old on his mountain bike rode through the same area that we had just walked through. I blamed it on our too skinny tires. The lighthouse is a striking edifice with its black and white steel plates, in a horizontal pattern, rising out of the sand and scrub vegetation at the waters edge. And me without my camera!

South of Ludington is White Pine Village, `where 20 historic buildings have been meticulously restored.’ The directions for getting there seem strange to me; go `two miles south, then one and one-half miles west of Ludington.’ That’s like saying one mile east of Lake Shore Drive in Chicago! We didn’t follow those directions exactly but did manage to find the Village whose sign in front is so understated that we drove right by it the first time. Contrast that with Wisconsin Dells where there are billboards for a hundred miles and even bigger ones when you get there!

Various buildings from around the area, all over 100 years old, have been moved to the Village and completely restored. Among them are a General Store, a one-room school with desks, chalk and slates for each student, Chapel, Post Office with a genuine leather saddle bag from the Pony Express days, and, my favorite, the Clock Shop, which we visited at about 11:30 am and vowed to come back 30 minutes later but forgot. We were there on a gloomy Friday and had the place to ourselves. There is a $5 per adult fee and worth it; at least for our age group.

Across the street from the Ludington Marina is a very popular restaurant called `PM Steamers’. We called at about 5 PM for reservations and they said that the first ones available were for around 8:00 PM! Their sister restaurant, Scotty’s, which is further away, had the same situation. So we made reservations for Gibbs Family Restaurant, located on the highway leading out of town about five miles from the marina, and had a very nice meal, some two hours before it would have been at the others.

Manistee, pop. 7500 -

manistee.JPG (15962 bytes)Manistee is a `Victorian’ town some 24 miles from Ludington, almost a days sail under ideal conditions. Not having such conditions, we drove it and found a place to park on a quiet street about a block from the Municipal Marina. The Harbormaster’s office, built into the steep bank of, and facing, the river, is relatively new, compared to the 100 year old buildings in town, with the usual amenities, washroom, shower, etc. It has a public washroom up the hill and on the street side of the building. The slips are lined up along the river, approximately 50 in number, and most of them were empty! Amazingly, at one the busiest vacation times of the year we could have had our pick as compared with Ludington where I heard boaters turned away early in the afternoon since the Marina was filled! From other sources we learned that has been the situation all season and for several years!

As Marjorie Cahn Brazer points out in her excellent book `Cruising Guide to the Great Lakes’, which we find most valuable when visiting a port for the first time, the downtown `is not only an architectural pleasure to look at, but comprises the range of practical downtown stores that serve a community of 7500 people rather than cutesy-boutiquey tourist attractions.’ And this may be the problem. Many of the buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places and, unless you are really into that sort of thing, would probably not be of interest to most boaters. But it seems to be a prosperous town, undoubtedly helped by its County Seat status, which has a healthy downtown area rather than the ghost town many cities are these days when the popular stores move out to the shopping centers.

As usual, we got out our bikes and `did the town’, visited the Marina, talked to the Harbormaster, and used the public facility. After about a half hour of riding around we decided that we had seen all that we wanted to see, packed up the car and left. But we would come back someday with our boat. All those empty slips are too much to pass up!

Pentwater -

12 miles south of Ludington is a charming resort village of 1200 year-round inhabitants, that is located on the north shore of Pentwater Lake which is 2 miles long and 1/2 mile wide; and deep. The harbor has virtually no commercial traffic and is well protected from the big lake by a 2,200 foot channel which leads to a sharp right angle once inside the smaller lake. The village is small; its municipal marina has only 12 slips, and it has one launch ramp which appeared to be suitable for our 21 ft. boat. Snug Harbor Marine seems to be the best choice of a place to stay. They had just completed a new main building with office, washrooms, showers, laundry and marine store.

It was raining off and on when we drove down to visit so we didn’t do any biking but were still able to cover the two sides of the main street in less than an hour, including taking time out to sample their hot fudge sundaes and purchase a huge homemade peach pie for $8.75.

If you are looking for a peaceful (some might say dull) location to spend a night on your boat we would recommend Pentwater.

The next morning, with a strong west wind we retrieved the boat with difficulty since , with the high lake water, the waves were coming over the breakwater all the way up to the ramp and bouncing the boat! The drive home was without incident and we arrived to a hot humid air that was blissfully missing the past few days in the seemingly cleaner, drier elevated atmosphere of NorthWest lower Michigan.

A review of these past pages would reveal a minimum of sailing. Actually, in the course of the entire week, we were on the big lake for only those two cold, wet, hours from Frankfort to Arcadia. We might as well have an RV! I wonder if they would take a trade-in?

The test of any area is whether or not one would plan on returning some day and the answer is definitely yes. Hopefully anyone contemplating a visit has gotten some insight about the area from this discussion. For more information you might want to contact the Leelanau Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, P. O. Box 336, Lake Leelanau, MI 49653, tel. 616-256-9895. Keep in mind that it is less touristy than Door County, although the terrain, size of towns and marinas would remind you of that area. But there is a sense of cleanness, simplicity, and folksiness that is lacking around the `big’ cities. You might like the change?

Anne & Dick Brandt are members of the Northwest Sailing Association. Dick has presented seminars at Strictly Sail, Chicago, on trailer sailing.

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