Hunts' Guide to The Upper Peninsula

 
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LES CHENEAUX ISLANDS

Region: Les Cheneaux Islands, Drummond Island & the St. Mary's River

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An untrumpeted treasure of the eastern Upper Peninsula is the Les Cheneaux Islands area, with its 36 rocky islands and its peninsulas, its wildflower meadows, and its cedar shores and wetlands. Within just 45 minutes of the Mackinac Bridge and Sault Ste. Marie, this old resort area makes a fine base for a week of relaxation that could be augmented with some sightseeing as far away as Tahquamenon Falls and Whitefish Point. This region along the northern shore of Lake Huron has tended to attract some of the Upper Peninsula's more affluent nature lovers, so it's no
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accident that seven nature preserves have been donated and/or purchased through The Nature Conservancy. Most do not have trails and are not promoted as visitor destinations. Birding, wildflower walks, sailing and kayaking, and, most of all, fishing are favorite activities.

The second Saturday of August the Antique Wooden Boat Show at Hessel puts the area in the spotlight. Otherwise, Les Cheneaux is off the beaten tourist track. There's not a big golf resort or shopping district to be found - and that's the way local residents and the people who have summered here for decades want things to stay. About the only obvious signs of development in the past decade are the big Cedarville Foods supermarket and a two-story Comfort Inn in Cedarville. However, increasing numbers of retirees and urban refugees are making their permanent homes here, and waterfront property is at a premium.

Les Cheneaux means "the channels" in French. Glaciers formed the rocky fingers of limestone, sand, and gravel that stretch out southeast into Lake Huron's most northwestern waters. These long fingers break up into a series of 36 islands along 12 miles of shore. At the heads of two island-filled bays are the onetime fishing villages of Hessel and Cedarville.

Some islands in Les Cheneaux are quite large. Others are big enough for just a few cottages. Tiny Dollar Island in the Snows Channel is a perch for a single fantastic house that extends its verandas and docks out into the water and seems to float without terrestrial support.

The sheltered bays and channels make for ideal sailing and boating since small craft are protected from the Great Lakes' winds and much bigger waves. Constantly changing vistas created by the complex shorelines of many islands and inlets make for interesting boating even at very slow speeds - in a rented fishing boat with an outboard motor, or in a canoe or kayak. (A paddler in good shape can canoe from Hessel to Cedarville in two hours.) The area's idiosyncratic shoreline architecture adds interest to paddling and cruising. Wonderful old boathouses, elaborately rustic like the big summer houses they are connected with, line long-established areas such as the east shore of Marquette Island and the mainland peninsula facing it.

The Snows have been a favorite summer retreat since the late 19th century. Older Middle Western cities had established themselves as industrial and commercial powerhouses and centers of great wealth. Hay fever relief and escape from city heat led many wealthy people from Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and especially Ohio to build rambling summer houses here, modestly referred to as "cottages." Favorite locations were the largest islands: Marquette Island, offshore from the village of Hessel, 6 1/2 miles long and 3 1/2 miles wide, and 4-mile-long La Salle Island off Cedarville. Tucked away on these wooded islands, the summer homes aren't as ostentatious as their counterparts on Mackinac Island or Harbor Springs, but their owners, heirs of founders of companies like Proctor & Gamble, Eli Lilly, and Armour, are no less wealthy. Les Cheneaux has always enjoyed a very low-key charm. The area's fishing, natural beauty, and tranquility also attracted artists, academics with free summers, and anglers from many walks of life.

Boats have always been, of necessity, the primary form of transportation here. Through the 1930s, summer people arrived by D&C steamer from Detroit or Cleveland. (Into the early 1960s the old route of M-134 from St. Ignace was just a gravel road.) Today on any of the islands not linked to the mainland by roads, there are no cars, just golf carts. Summer islanders use motor boats to get to the mainland, where marinas park their cars.

Les Cheneaux is famous for having the largest number of restored wood-hulled boats in the United States. Being in storage nine or ten months a year spares a lot of wear and tear on summer people's boats. Thanks to family tradition, nostalgia, and natural thrift, it's de rigueur in these parts to keep that old mahogany Chris-Craft for 40 or 50 years and to maintain it in excellent condition. Mertaugh's Boat Works, on the waterfront in the center of Hessel, is the oldest Chris-Craft dealer in the U.S., dating from 1925. New owners have given it a contemporary look, and now it doesn't look that old. Another source of vintage wood boats was the local boat-building trade. It developed to serve fishermen and was kept alive by purchases from summer visitors.

All this makes for a pleasant little paradise for environmentally-conscious sailors and anglers who hate the noise and posturing of powerboats and the macho boaters who go with them. At the municipal marinas at Cedarville and Hessel during July and August, wooden boats can be seen in all directions, with more and more sailboats all the time. The attractively designed marinas have gazebos and plenty of benches that make them nice places to linger.

There's long been an Ojibwa community around Hessel. Today the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa has built its smallest Kewadin Casino (484-2903) on Three Mile Road north of town, not far from the tribe's development of ranch homes. Les Cheneaux doesn't have the tourist traffic that typically goes with Indian gambling.

Viewed from water or land, the shoreline of Les Cheneaux makes for a tranquil landscape. White boulders and mostly gravely beaches are played off against a blue summer sky, the bright greens of poplars and birches, and the contrasting dark cedars and spruces. In late summer, splashes of goldenrod and purple asters create a simple beauty that's an ideal antidote to overstimulated lives. Fall colors, more yellow than red, stand out against the evergreen and water. If you can't use a boat to explore the area, take beautiful M-134 east to DeTour, stopping frequently along the way.

This sense of sweet simplicity and harmony with the natural world is captured in the delightful and hugely successful cookbook Hollyhocks and Radishes: Mrs. Chard's Almanac Cookbook. It was inspired by author Bonnie Mickelson's many summers in the Snows and by the generous, life-loving spirit of the late Julia Chard. For years Mrs. Chard dispensed fresh vegetables, coffee, cooking tips, and country wisdom from her front-yard produce stand near Hessel. Her observations on life and the world around her give the book a wonderful depth. Stop by the Hessel office of Pickle Point Publishing. (It's in the Weekly Wave building on Pickford Avenue between a bar and the Hessel Bay Inn.) There you can get Hollyhocks and Radishes, autographed by the author if she's around, which she often is between May and September.

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